Hemp as a Natural Fiber

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This article was published by PristinePlanet.com Newsletter, issue #4, 2005-02-10.

Centuries ago, people were well aware of the many uses of hemp, which is a versatile fiber plant — not to be confused with marijuana grown for narcotic purposes. As the oldest cultivated fiber plant on earth, hemp has a long and notable history intertwined with our own. It was used extensively for making paper, prior to cotton replacing it for non-ecological reasons. For instance, the first Gutenberg Bible was printed on hemp paper, as were the first drafts of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. As a raw material for making cloth, hemp was second to none for strength and durability. The sails and ropes used on the great sailing ships were fashioned from hemp, as was the first flag of the American colonial states, and the original Levi's blue jeans.

Hemp has innumerable industrial and manufacturing uses. Back in 1941, Henry Ford built a car made from the fibers of hemp and wheat straw, creating a primitive plastic. Modern automobile makers have not forgotten that potential, as evidenced by reports that BMW is experimenting with wheels utilizing hemp in place of fiberglass matte. Not only can hemp be employed in the construction of motor vehicles, but it can provide the fuel to power them. In addition to being completely renewable (unlike the oilfields in the Middle East), hemp is quite an efficient fuel, able to produce 10 times more methanol than can corn. Hemp's versatility will no doubt be further explored in the future, as the modern world continues to burn hydrocarbons that are nearing peak production. Given the appropriate chemical and materials technology, anything that is made from a hydrocarbon can instead be created from a carbohydrate such as hemp fiber.

Hemp may receive little respect nowadays from the general public, but truly should be considered an environmental superstar. Hemp plastic is biodegradable, while synthetic plastic is not. Hemp plants reduce erosion and nourish the soil. In stark contrast to oil, hemp burns clean and free of sulfur. While half of the pesticides in the U.S. are sprayed on cotton plants, hemp plants need no such pollutants to flourish, and are naturally resistant to mildew, unlike cotton. In terms of replacing wood products, hemp is far more cost-effective, because it can be cultivated in less than four months, and yields four times more paper than trees can.

Nowadays, one of the most common applications of hemp fiber is for creating paper, just as it was ages ago. Hemp paper is stronger and longer lasting than paper made from wood pulp, and is free of chlorine and other acids. In terms of reusability, there is no contest, because hemp paper can be recycled seven times, while wood pulp paper can only muster four times. Cotton-based paper is more recyclable than wood pulp, but involves more chemicals than hemp in its manufacture, and does not last as long as hemp paper. If and when U.S. authorities finally get over hemp's unfortunate and ill-founded stigma, then people will likely gain a renewed respect for this hearty plant, and you may see it making a welcome comeback on a desk or in a gas tank near you.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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