Hemp fiber, building materials and the environment

By Robert Ziner

The hemp plant (Cannabis sativa) is just a weed. However, by offering a natural solution to many environmental problems thoughtlessly created by mankind, it is much more than that!

These problems include, too much carbon dioxide in the air caused by too much pollution, poor quality soil due to poor farming practices or a lack of crop rotation, soil killing pesticides to deal with invasive crop pests, crops which have unsustainable need for huge amounts of water and environmental plastic pollution – especially in the ocean- caused by oil-based polymer products which take 600 years to bio-degrade.

Building Materials & The Environment

Hemp fibers are ideal for building materials: The exceptional strength of the hemp plant’s fibers have already gained global recognition. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the hemp plant is “a unique, non-toxic feedstock with promising properties suitable for a broad range of building applications”. This is because hemp-derived materials directly result in higher-quality and healthier living spaces.

Significantly, according to the U.N. Environment Programme, the building sector contributes up to 30% of humanity’s global annual greenhouse gas emissions. It is projected that left unchecked, greenhouse gas emissions from unsustainable buildings will more than double in the next 20 years.

Hemp, Soil& CO2

Scientific testing has proven that hemp fiber provides truly exceptional properties when it comes to being environmentally friendly. In fact, hemp crops are Mother Nature’s greatest known carbon sequestration tool with the plant actually absorbing“ surplus” Carbon dioxide (CO2). Given the fact that there are now many global efforts to decrease global CO2 levels, this naturally ability of hemp is very significant. 

According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007), the fastest way to sequester CO2 is for farmers to focus on the restoration of over-cultivated and worn-out “dirt”.  

Dirt is what soil is not. Soil is a potent, relevant carbon storage medium that provides nutrients to plants as well as being the storage trap for C02. Meanwhile, hemp has deep roots that draw out toxins from the ground, thereby helping remove the CO2 from the air. Drawing CO2 into the hemp plant itself, CO2 is permanently stored in the cell structure – released only by fire. Soil contains more carbon than the entire atmospheric environment and all living greenery, combined. It is worth noting that for each acre of hemp grown, 1 tonne of CO2 is removed from the atmosphere.

Hempcrete & CO2

A growing construction market is “Hempcrete”, considered by many to be an ideal structural building material. Produced by mixing “chunks” of the hemp stalk’s inner core (called hurd or shiv) with lime and water, a chemical reaction takes place which turns the hurd into a crystalline structure that is actually stronger and more durable, than concrete. In Nagano, Japan, there is a structure built from hemp in 1698 which is still standing intact. It is over 300 years old.

Contemporary structures built from hempcrete are energy efficient with low thermal conductivity, high thermal capacity, and high insulation values. These structures produce significant energy savings throughout their product life cycle: Tests prove they are about 80% more energy efficient, when compared to conventional buildings which contain heating and air conditioning. For a single-family home, this represents an annual savings of about $1,243, as well as an annual CO2 reduction of about 8,000 kg.

Fiberglass and the Environment

Another fast-growing market for hemp is replacing the traditional fiberglass “feedstock” of batt insulation with bast fibers. Bast is as durable and energy effective as fiberglass, but much lighter in weight and safer to install. It also provides for better quality air being circulated as well as mitigating the risk of any mold or mildew developing should any water infiltrate an enclosed structure’s outer membrane. 

Glass fibers have a long lifespan, up to 100 years and they are known to be an environmental hazard. There are serious health concerns related to fiberglass fibers, especially if they are inhaled, causing fibers to settle in the lungs. Short-term exposure can lead to irritation, itching or coughing; and concerns over long-term exposure resulted in the Occupational and Health Safety Association (OSHA), in 1999, creating exposure limits for fiberglass in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences.

Although the National Academy of Sciences concluded that fiberglass is not linked to cancer backed up by a 2001 study published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, research is ongoing. In any case, glass fibers should never be used without protective gear.

There are also considerable concerns about the production of fiberglass because it releaseshazardous air pollutants and volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere: The EPA has specifically regulated the release of formaldehyde, a toxic chemical released during production, proven to damage human health.

Bast fibers are also used in “cavity-filling” insulation applications where the hurd is poured directly into wall cavities, which creates an airtight mass that has minimal heat loss – and is then treated with the lime/ water mix characteristic of hempcrete.  This method also provides excellent sound absorption and fire-resistance with obvious benefits of directly lower heating and air-conditioning costs and delivering better circulation, of cleaner air.

Hemp, Water&Environmental Plastic Pollution

A 2017 study found that, of the 8.3 B tonnes produced since 1950, when plastic was first invented, 6.3 B tonnes (72.3%) has been thrown away – and not recycled. 

Environmental plastic pollution (EPP) is a huge world-wide problem – which is getting worse every day.  This is not just because the growing accumulation of discarded plastic is very unsightly and poses a biological danger to wildlife; it is also about the unseen problems associated with the plastic fragments and toxins which will be released during many decades of photo-decomposition, and thereby directly pollute soil and water.

EPP is caused by discarded plastic products made of oil-based polymers produced using a wide range of thermoplastic techniques: extrusion, injection moulding, pultrusion and compression moulding.  Once created by heating and curing, the shaped plastic polymers in the resultant products do not decompose into the environment for literally, hundreds of years.

Here are some important facts to consider about environmental plastic pollution:

1) The amount of plastic globally produced in 2020 year was roughly 350 MILLION Tons (700 BILLION pounds) – the same as the entire weight of humanity.

  • 9 Million TONS of plastic winds up in our oceans each year: There is more microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way.
  • Synthetic, oil-based “Microfibre” textiles and clothing are poisoning our oceans and food supply.
  • If oil-based polymer production isn’t curbed, the resulting plastic pollution will outweigh all living fish, pound for pound by 2050.

The hemp plant has internal fibres which offer an invaluable opportunity to reduce the volume and the environmental impact of oil-based polymer-based thermoplastic production.  The opportunity is to utilize hemp as a natural fibre to replace a portion – up to 50% – of this polymer to achieve more sustainable, environmentally-friendly and cost-effective bio-composite products.  These products have already been proven around the world, with a wide range of nature’s fibres. 

As a natural fibre, hemp can be “compounded” (mixed) into polymer and be used as a sustainable feedstock in a wide range of thermoplastic products. The hemp will add strength and durability while displacing polymers and reducing overall weight. The opportunity is to replace as much polymer volume as possible.  An annual 25% reduction in global polymer consumption represents87.5 million Tons (175 billion lbs.). As well, the lower material feedstock costs associated with bio-composites will make competitively-priced, hemp-based bio-composite products more compelling. 

The growing awareness and concern over marine plastic litter and microplastics has resulted in controlling the manufacture, use, and disposal of plastic products. This will help in particular contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 14.1.2 – and further encourage the use of bio-composite plastics to help reduce the impact of plastic pollution and protect the world’s precious water resources.

SUMMARY

Hemp-based construction projects have already been built around the world, including the U.S.A. with both residential and commercial projects. Using hemp fibers enables a homebuilder to automatically fulfill Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards of energy efficiency excellence.

Compared to current building materials, hemp products create healthier and more comfortable living spaces. Prices for hemp-derived products will lower as manufacturers adopt hemp bio-resin materials as their new plastic “solution”. Now and in the future, we can expect to see the launch of a range of environmentally “more” friendly, hemp-derived companies and products.

As more intelligent hemp processing methods are adopted, more cost-competitive hemp-based products will be supplied into the marketplace. And as hemp marketplaces expand …the global environment and economy will benefit.

.Robert Ziner is the CEO of Canadian Industrial Hemp Corporation (CIHC). He founded CIHC in 2016 after being sent to China by the Canadian Alberta government, to determine if AI could be effective in building a viable and thriving hemp fiber industry in that province. He has a 30 year history in AI and advanced manufacturing technologies as they relate to natural fibers. In 1989 he partnered with General Electric’s Factory Automation group to develop an AI-driven, Computer Integrated Manufacturing application for secondary wood processing – which he patented in 1991. After building a new facility in 1997, sales increased from $37 M a year to $240 M by 2001. CIHC’s proprietary Smart Stalk System is now globally patent-pending: It redefines the economics of hemp stalk processing by transforming it into hemp fiber optimization. The technology is built around its core IP which is the world’s first automated hemp fiber quality control system. Projections indicate that Smart Stalk will increase operating margins over 100%.

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