For thousands of years, humans have utilised the hemp plant for a staggering number of industrial, medicinal, spiritual, and recreational uses. From the production of clothing, rope, and even weapons, to a source of nutrition and medicine, this low-THC cannabis plant has had a huge influence on the development of societies all around the globe. But this diverse crop could also have wider, equally-positive implications on the environment, thanks to its incredible green credentials.
As lawmakers, activists, and society as a whole continue to search for answers to the climate crisis, in honour of World Environment Day 2022, we’re taking a look at the part that hemp could play.
World Environment Day
Every year on the 5th of June, activists, campaigners, and people from all over the world come together to honour World Environment Day – and this year was no different. First held in 1973, following the first major conference on environmental issues, convened under the auspices of the United Nations in the previous year, World Environment Day has been recognised every year since. The conference also led to the development of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which has hosted World Environment Day for almost five decades.
The global event is used as a means of urging “Governments and the organisations in the United Nations system to undertake on that day every year world-wide activities reaffirming their concern for the preservation and enhancement of the environment, with a view to deepening environmental awareness and to pursuing the determination expressed at the Conference.”
This year, as with the 48 previous years, World Environment Day is used to raise awareness and generate political momentum around growing environmental concerns.
The Green Credentials of Hemp
As education, research, and access to cannabis continues to improve, the public is gradually being made aware of all this plant has to offer. Far from being the morally questionable, dangerous drug of 20th-century propaganda, it turns out this crop could actually be really helpful in our mission to save the environment.
Hemp is an extremely hardy plant that can grow almost anywhere – even in poor quality soil. In fact, evidence shows that hemp may actually improve soil quality. This is thanks to the plant’s interlocking roots that can help prevent soil erosion and lock in nitrogen, making the soil more fertile and hospitable for other plants. Hemp is also naturally resistant to many pests, reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides that can damage soil quality.
Hemp has also been used to regenerate soil that has been affected by nuclear spills – perhaps most famously, in the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Through the process of phytoremediation, hemp can remove harmful or toxic contaminants from the earth, reducing radiation and improving soil quality.
CO2 pollution is one of the key accelerators of climate change and resulting damage to our environment. It is a well-known fact that plants soak up CO2 from the atmosphere and release oxygen, and few plants do so more efficiently than hemp. It has been found that just one hectare of the crop can absorb up to 15 tonnes of CO2, making hemp one of the fastest natural CO2-to-biomass conversion tools at our disposal.
This incredible efficiency makes hemp more effective than trees at absorbing and storing CO2. In fact, hemp absorbs more of the compound per hectare annually than any other crop or commercial forestry.
An Alternative to Industrial Products
As we mentioned earlier, hemp has been utilised for the manufacture of a wide range of products over the centuries, and this diversity can still be useful today. Prior to the spread of the now-common ‘wood’ paper that we still use today, the pulp and fibre from the hemp plant were used to make this important product. Despite falling out of fashion in recent decades, hemp paper actually has many benefits.
As it is naturally light, it requires little to no bleaching (a process that exposes the environment to harmful chemicals), unlike paper made from trees. Furthermore, hemp paper can be recycled up to 8 times, compared to three times for tree-sourced paper.
The manufacture of hemp clothing could also help to reduce the damage done by cotton cultivation – a practice that has an extreme effect on the environment. Hemp cultivation requires significantly less water than cotton: around 700 gallons per 2.2 pounds of hemp, compared with 5,000 gallons for the same weight of cotton! Hemp’s durability also marked hemp clothing stronger and longer-lasting, which could help to reduce clothes waste – another serious environmental issue.
Hemp’s durability makes the crop potentially useful in other industries, apart from fashion – in particular, in construction. In recent years, a number of companies have developed hemp-based construction materials, such as ‘hempcrete‘ – a sustainable alternative to concrete. While this may appear to be a relatively new innovation, people were actually using hemp to make mortar, an example of which was found in pillars of bridges built in France, in the 7th century. Hemp is also a great insulator and can be used as a greener alternative to non-recyclable fibreglass insulation!
So there you have it! Just some of the many green credentials that could make hemp a serious player as we continue to search for ways to reduce our impact on the environment.