Hurdles of hemp plastic

Hemp-based bioplastics present disposal challenges

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The current demand for eco-solutions to modern waste issues has generated a swell of green business opportunities. 

Companies like The Hemp Plastic Company (THCP) in Boulder, offer alternative bio-plastics to replace conventional petroleum plastics. Hemp plastics use natural fibrous plant-material, instead of crude oil materials and are marketed as a greener option. THPC claims it could help “resolve the plastic issue for good” on its website. 

“[THPC] has reduced plastic pollution down to a design decision,” says Kevin Tubbs, the company’s cofounder. “Hemp plastic materials are versatile, renewable, sustainable, they may also be biodegradable and in some cases even compostable.”

But some entrepreneurs and sustainability businesses remain skeptical when it comes to hemp bio-plastic. Is it as eco-friendly as producers would have consumers believe? Or is it sometimes just green-washed marketing? 

As two sustainably focused entrepreneurs from Colorado’s cannabis industry point out, hemp bio-plastic can be neither commercially composted in the U.S. nor can it be recycled currently. 

“There’s a lot of misrepresentation,” says Cody Zeiring, one of the cofounders of PAQ Case, a sustainably sourced, reusable cannabis pre-roll case company. “When you think of it in sustainability terms, hemp plastic is actually a lot worse for the environment.” 

PAQ cases are made from 100% recycled polypropylene plastic. The company has started using reclaimed ocean plastics, and plans to switch over entirely this year. PAQ’s cases are reusable and recyclable — but they were almost neither. They considered using hemp bio-plastic for its cases, but it became clear it was not quite the solution it’s often sold as. 

To start, most hemp plastic on the market only partially consists of hemp biomaterial — as little as 5% and usually no more than 30%. The rest is almost always a polypropylene “plasticizer” (aka regular old petroleum plastic), which, Zeiring says, is needed for rigidity. Hemp is biodegradable; hemp plastic with polypropylene is not.

Notably, of the four hemp plastic options listed on THPC’s website, only one is “fully compostable bioplastic.” The other three all contain plasticizers, like ethylene, propylene and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene making them non-compostable. “We specialize in 25% fiber formulations,” Tubbs says, meaning that the main product is 75% polypropylene. When asked if THPC’s hemp plastics are biodegradable, Tubbs responds, “Some formulations may be biodegradable.”

Sana Packaging, a sustainable cannabis packaging company, also produces 100% hemp and bio-based plastic materials, but the company steers clear of marketing its products as biodegradable because there’s no domestic facilities that can compost it, according to Sana cofounder James Eichner.

“If we were selling our same hemp plastic products in a country like Denmark or Sweden, it would absolutely be compostable,” Eichner says, “because their industrial composting infrastructure is light years ahead of ours.”

It’s why Sana intentionally uses the term “plant-based” instead.

“That inevitably gets our customers to ask about biodegrade-ability or compost-ability. And that becomes an opportunity for us to educate them on the larger challenges we’re facing with our broken waste management system,” Eichner says. 

Domestic compostability is only part of the problem hemp bio-plastics present, though. According to both Zeiring and Eichner, hemp bio-plastic products also cannot be recycled for the simple reason that they contain both hemp and petroleum-based plastic. 

“When you mix a biomaterial with a petroleum-based material to create a plastic, there’s nothing you can do with that material at the end of its useful life other than send it to landfill,” Eichner says. “You’re just creating an unsolvable problem.”

That’s why both companies are moving toward reclaimed ocean plastic products. As Eichner puts it, “There’s absolutely no reason to be using virgin resins when there’s so much out there in the environment that needs to be cleaned up.” 

While hemp-based bio-plastics represent an alternative to traditional plastics, the U.S. waste system must adapt to make it truly sustainable. Eichner likens it to the recycling movement of the 1970s — companies started to produce more recyclable materials, which led to a demand for more and better recycling facilities.

Tubbs with THPC notes that, “Hemp plastic is indeed a breakthrough,” but it is part of a far bigger solution, he says. “One that encompasses not just materials and process, but also public mindset and habit.”

Eichner and Zeiring seem to agree. 

“Our goal is to normalize circular and sustainable packaging,” Eichner says. “But that really includes everyone doing it, not just us.”