Hemp Is the Future of Paper

Despite the prevalence of digital information exchange, paper is still widely used in North America, for anything from wedding invitations to ballot mail-ins to arts & crafts. According to the Forest Ethics organization, paper consumption in North America has declined, but global paper consumption has increased. However, despite the decrease in consumption, North America still consumes more paper per capita than anywhere else (see Figure 1 below).

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Fig. 1: Environmental Paper Graphic. Annual Consumption per Capita. 2014. Infographic.

Because the need for paper can’t be expected to decline to extinction, we, as caretakers of the planet, need to look at making paper production a more economically efficient process than it is now. One way of doing so would be to find a cleaner, faster source for paper material than trees. Trees contain a relatively small amount of cellulose, the primary ingredient for paper. Hemp has a much higher concentration of cellulose and has a long history of being used for paper, as well as many other products such as rope, clothing, and textiles. While harvesting trees isn’t necessarily an environmentally harmful solution for paper demand, harvesting hemp instead is a far more efficient one.

It is important to note that using trees from managed timberlands to satisfy national paper demand isn’t directly harming the environment. Managed timberlands are forests grown specifically for the manufacturing of various products, so natural forests are rarely destroyed to fuel the manufacturing process. Managed timberlands are utilized for the creation of many different products, but for the purpose of this discussion, we’ll focus on their uses in regards to paper. Paper production begins when trees are planted. They mature, are felled, and then transported to a saw mill to be broken down into wood chips. The wood chips are sent to a pulp mill to be made into paper and distributed from there. National forests are not being cut down for consumption, and we are not in danger of driving trees to extinction in North America.

However, heavy reliance on tree crops leads to some serious drawbacks. For instance, managed timberlands take up a great deal of space, and with a growing paper demand, the required land will increase as well. About 40% of trees planted for the purpose of consumption go into paper production. Additionally, pulp and paper production accounts for 4% of the world’s energy expenditure, as well as a great deal of water use. Tree pulp produces high-quality paper, and paper production gives us a use for the cellulose from trees that are cut down for lumber. However, paper made from tree pulp cracks and yellows as it ages, and it takes 10-20 years for a tree to mature enough to be felled. The (short-term) quality of the paper may be one of the only benefits to using tree pulp over hemp pulp.

Hemp can be used to replace almost all cellulose-based products that are currently being manufactured using trees, such as paper, and do it more cheaply and efficiently. Hemp grows much more quickly than trees do, taking only about 4 months to mature from the time it is planted. It can also produce more paper than trees per acre, due to the much higher levels of cellulose present in the hemp plant. Hemp paper doesn’t require bleaching, which means less chemicals need to be used in the production process. Because of the lower levels of chemicals, hemp paper lasts longer and doesn’t crack or yellow with age. The benefits from making a real change from managed timberlands to hemp crops would make any drawbacks worthwhile.

Making the switch from tree paper to hemp paper would not be instantaneous or easy, however. There are several obstacles to this change. For example, the mills used to process trees would all have to be outfitted with entirely new equipment. Hemp fibers make such long-lasting paper because they are so much stronger than tree fibers, but that means that the equipment used to mash wood chips into pulp would not be heavy-duty enough to process hemp. Installing the new equipment would take time and cost a great deal of money, and it may cause employment problems. The installation process might create new jobs and provide a small boost for the economy, but the reduction in demand for forest crops might also lead to job cuts in the lumber industry. Managed timberlands would not be completely eradicated because there would still be a demand for lumber, and new land would have to be set aside for the cultivation of hemp.

As far as drawbacks go, it’s worth remembering that legalizing the growth of industrial hemp would not mean the same thing as legalizing recreational drug use. The hemp used for paper is a different strain of the cannabis plant than marijuana and doesn’t contain THC. Once grown, it can’t be used retroactively as a drug. Fighting for industrial hemp and fighting for marijuana are two different battles, and in this case legalization should be a non-issue. Overturning the current paper production system would take time, hard work, and long-term investment, but realistically it’s possible and preferable.

Despite the drawbacks, industrial hemp would be much more economically efficient than trees when it comes to the production of paper. Hemp would be faster to grow, take up less space, and produce a stronger, more versatile product. It’s already replacing trees successfully in other places around the world, such as in Canada, proving that it’s a plausible solution to rising paper demand. Replacing tree paper with hemp paper would not be easy, but for the sake of long-term sustainability, it would be worth it.