Hemp industry rises as the main alternative to wood in paper production.

¡Hemp paper, an ancient and sustainable tradition!

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Benito Díaz

The consumption of products derived from wood has increased 64% since 1961, according to a study published in the magazine Hemphasis Fall. The production of paper pulp has increased a 40% since 1998 globally, and a 60% growth is expected during the next 50 years.

This increase in the demand has given rise to one of the most polluting industries in history. For instance, the USA consume two hundred million tons of paper annually, an amount that grows 4% every year. This means a thousand trees consumed in every cycle, which amounts to an average of 330 kilograms per citizen of the USA.

The extraction and processing of paper pulp is the third most polluting industry in the world, with 100.000 million kilos of emissions and toxic waste to air and water. Deforestation has freed into the atmosphere approximately 120.000 million tons of CO2, emitting three million tons of chlorine as well. This gas makes dioxins appear. Dioxins are considered one of the most dangerous toxic substances ever produced. They cause cancer, hepatic insufficiency, miscarriages, congenital malformation and even damages in the genome.

In the light of this desolate landscape, the hemp industry rises as the main alternative, thanks to the reduced environmental impact of its extraction procedures.

Ecologic production

Water, a blender and carbonate sodium are all the things needed to obtain the cellulose pulp by the usual procedure. The resulting pulp is also known as slurry. This product is free of acids such as chlorine, thus being biodegradable and safe. After being stretched, compacted and dried, we obtain a very resistant paper that can be used for different applications. Many of them are very common, such as filing paper (because of its durability), teabags, banknotes, filter paper, hygiene products, the ubiquitous smoking papers or stationery. Let’s remember the current industry of pulp and paper uses great amounts of water to produce a ton of product, much more than any other industry. This factor is reduced when using hemp.

Sustainable alternative

The main advantage of hemp as a source of cellulose for paper, and the one that differentiates it from tree’s, is how useful it is in the fight against deforestation. Hemp’s output in terms of amount of cellulose obtained, near to 77%, proves more efficient than wood or cotton. The production of these two reaches 90% of cellulose obtained but incurs more costs and pollution. The preservation of the natural habitat and the conservation of the ground are factors to be taken in consideration.

The growth speed makes half an acre of hemp capable of producing the same amount of paper as a much larger crop of trees in a 20-year cycle. While the different kinds of trees can take from 20 to 80 years before being ready for producing paper, hemp stalks can be ready for harvest in only four months.

As Miguel Gimeno, ecoagriculture farmer, explained to us, hemp plantations are carbon sinks, like most plantations. This means they help in managing toxic gases, storing them in their structures and on the ground. Furthermore, hemp needs less care and water than a conventional crop.

The paper obtained from hemp pulp is more resistant because of the length of its fibres and can last for centuries, avoiding the natural ageing process of trees’ paper, which yellows and cracks. Also, it can be recycled between seven and eight times, not three as its competitor.

Millenary hemp

Paper was born in China, around the 1st century CE. The most ancient shred was recovered in a grave in the Xian area, in the province of Shaanxi, and has been dated between years 140 and 87 BC. The ancient writings, Buddhist texts of the first and second centuries BC, were written on hemp paper.

Ever since T’sai Lun, director of the imperial workshops and private counsellor to the court of Ho Ti of the Han dynasty, conceived the idea of preparing a mix of shreds of silk, mulberry leaves, broken fishing nets, hemp and fishbones in boiling water, macerating the pulp and inventing the fundamental base for the manufacture of paper in the year 105 CE, this invention has spread throughout history, allowing civilisation to expand in a much faster way.

Banknotes, the declaration of independence of the USA, historic pamphlets, Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, the Adventures of Tom Sawyer or King James Bible are several examples of literary works first published in hem paper.