We’ve seen a broad move towards more eco-friendly practices over the last decade, as the historical harm we’ve done to the environment has started to catch up to us. Whether it’s reducing the widespread use of plastics, investing in alternate energy methods, or planting “greener” crops that soak up more carbon dioxide than is generated in their cultivation, we’ve done it all, and we’re looking to do more as of now.

Marijuana and Hemp | Two different forms of cannabis on opposite sides of the climate debate

Hemp, legalized for industrial use via the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills, has steadily begun to gain traction as each state’s pilot program has begun to take off. While the onset of the pandemic has marred progress on regulations and legislation surrounding the 2018 Bill, we’re now seeing Hemp traded across states, and clarifications from the USDA’s office have implied that Hemp could potentially become a staple of interstate commerce since not every state possesses the sort of year-round climate that favors Hemp. 

Marijuana, meanwhile, is still a somewhat contested commodity, and its legality is subject to different rules from state to state. At the federal level, marijuana is still classed as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, making interstate transport illegal. As such, states that have legalized marijuana for both (or either) recreational or medicinal purposes have to grow their crop. States that don’t have a warm or reliable climate enough to cultivate the crop have relied on indoor farming methods to get around these limitations, which has yielded mixed results. On the one hand, you have highly-controlled conditions that can improve yield and crop quality; on the other, you have an indoor farm’s extremely high utility cost. 

Indoor farming makes marijuana an unsustainable crop, one with a considerable negative impact on the environment. On the other hand, Hemp can be grown in the open and excess, with the extra amount traded to states with less friendly weather. It’s also soil-friendly and provides a fuel alternative; waste from the hemp plant can be reintroduced to the soil as fertilizer, and hemp biofuel is a green energy source that can alleviate a farm’s reliance on fossil fuels.

For all of these reasons, Hemp and marijuana, both variants of the cannabis plant, rest on opposite sides of the climate change debate. With its affinity for soaking up CO2, Hemp presents itself as a critical instrument in the fight against climate change. On the other hand, marijuana, with its reliance on environmentally-costly indoor growing operations, presents itself as a “climate villain.” Growing a ton of Hemp will absorb over 1.6 times its weight in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and yield biofuel that reduces the emissions that would otherwise accompany the use of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, yielding a kilogram of dried marijuana will release the equivalent of 2 to 5 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, depending on exactly where in the US it’s grown.

Hemp vs. Cotton | A better alternative on all fronts?

Cotton enjoys a reputation as one of the most demanding and environmentally-unfriendly cash crops on the planet, and it’s easy to see why. Cotton requires an absurd amount of water in its production, and the crop takes roughly five months to mature. To make matters worse, the crop itself is extremely fragile; it can drown in the face of excessive or stagnant rainfall, is highly susceptible to pests, and degrades the soil over time. 

Hemp fiber can be woven into fabric or used to make paper, all while requiring less than half as much water per unit yield and growing in three-fifths of the time. Hemp is much more robust and hardy as a crop; it doesn’t require as many pesticides or insecticides, and not utilizing less water means it’s less harmful from a soil erosion perspective. Contrary to cotton, which can render soil toxic over time, hemp byproducts can create fertilizer that helps sustain or even improve soil quality over time.

Even as a fabric, Hemp offers a better alternative to cotton in most scenarios. Unprocessed hemp fiber is rough to the touch, but it can be refined for a better or more familiar feel. In addition, this fiber can be woven into a more substantial, softer, and longer-lasting fabric than cotton. In many ways, hemp fabric accomplishes everything cotton does at a much lower cost to the environment; it’s soft, light, breathable, durable, and strong. It is also simpler to grow and process.

Hemp Plastics

Plastics are one of the leading causes of irreparable environmental damage to date; ever since the days of Bakelite, it’s speculated that over 90 percent of the plastics we’ve produced are still out there today. Recycling allows us to reuse certain kinds of plastics, but the primary problem still stands: plastics don’t decay the way natural substances do; they’re way cheaper to make than they are to dispose of effectively, and the most favorable estimates we have to tell is that they take upwards of 400 years to degrade in the environment.

Conventional plastics are created through polymer resins that are essentially petroleum derivatives. The processes used to create them are responsible for their longevity and durability, rendering them almost indestructible through natural processes. Natural resins, meanwhile, may be developed through cellulose-rich fibers like Hemp and used to produce bioplastics, which don’t last as long as conventional plastics. 

Bioplastics are starting to see use as alternatives to conventional plastics in almost all applications. For example, you can find Hemp and composite plastic straws, pens, bottles, bags, and even automotive parts. Of course, hemp plastics haven’t seen nearly as much R&D or use as traditional plastics, so we haven’t been able to fine-tune the production process as much, but the potential for a greener alternative has been made clear. 

Conclusion

Hemp is a highly versatile and eco-friendly crop that can help curb several of the worst causes of environmental degradation. However, to maximize its potential as a climate-saving crop, we must first look closely at the problems Hemp can help us fix, whether it’s lessening dependence on unsustainable yields or introducing greener alternatives to traditionally environmentally harmful plastics.