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Hemp: An Alternative Fiber for Making Paper

Making Paper from Marijuana Instead of Wood Fiber

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"Flax is so injurious to our lands, and so scanty produce, that I have never attempted (using) it. Hemp, on the other hand, is abundantly productive and will grow forever on the same spot." -
Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Journal Entry of December 29, 1815

A reaction to the loss of the world's rainforests is an attempt to find alternate sources of fiber for paper - to replace wood fiber. One pro hemp group that some call the "industrial hemp movement" would have you believe hemp fiber is the answer to deforestation.

Some hemp supporters legitimately want to use hemp for manufactured products including paper. Others may be pursuing the agenda of legalizing Cannabis sativa C. Linnaeus for medicinal and recreational uses and are using the "alternative use" issue as an end-run to legalization.

Another name for this plant is marijuana.

The History of Hemp Fiber

The Chinese used hemp for paper as far back as 8,000 BC. Ancient documents have been retrieved that were totally hemp based. This is certainly a testament to the ability of hemp fiber to withstand the destructive nature of time.

Herodotus writes that Thracians used both the wild and cultivated fiber for cloth. He marveled at the garments made from hemp and compared it to linen. He also wrote about the purification rites associated with "vapor-baths" and breathing smoldering smoke from moist hemp seed.

Hemp's by-product is tetrahydracannabinol (THC) and is a psychoactive chemical generally absorbed through the respiratory system or digestive tract with a significant effect on perception and cognitive abilities.

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were advocates of Cannabis fiber and recommended their fellow countrymen to use the plant for lamp oil and fabric for uniforms and clothing. Jefferson found its cloth a rival to cotton, at much less cost and he used it to clothe his farm hands. George Washington was said to be more familiar with the plant as a drug.

The last legal hemp crop was harvested in 1957 due to competitive industrial product shifts and a restrictive U.S. Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Today, in many countries, it is illegal to grow hemp without a government permit - and the permits are nearly impossible to get.

The Industrial Hemp Movement There is now a worldwide revival of value-added hemp products as an alternative material for building, food products, health and beauty aids, fabrics, car fuel, and paper. It does not seem to be catching on as the Worlds demand for industrial hemp fiber is not increasing.

The Argument For Hemp Paper...

Dave Seber, in an interview for High Times magazine, indicated that being in the "lumber business for almost 15 years now...I have watched the forests being taken out here." Seber has been a redwood logger and president of C&S Lumber, an R&D organization in Oregon dedicated to finding replacement fibers for wood.

"As I see it," Seber says "we've got 10 to 20 years, tops, before the entire ecosystem, as we know it, will collapse because of what they are doing in these forests." He goes on to suggest that the "environmental threat" to forests will worsen if no alternate fiber to wood is found. And, as you probably guessed, he thinks hemp is the answer.

Edit: This prediction was made in 1997.

Carol Moran heads a company called Living Tree Paper Company in Eugene, Oregon. She, according to an article in ENN Online, is convinced that hemp can "single-handedly stop worldwide deforestation." Her company's magazine is even printed on non-tree hemp paper.

Mary Kane, publisher of HempWorld, a quarterly journal of the hemp movement says that "eventually the DEA will be forced to relinquish the ban on hemp farming. It's a plant that can provide alternatives to anything synthetic." She further states that "hemp can save the world but we have to give it a chance."

Hemp advocates argue that hemp fiber is more durable than wood and can be recycled more frequently than tree fiber. Hemp produces a highly nutritious seed crop that can be of comparable value to the fiber crop. Agriculturally grown hemp would fit well with natural forests and tree plantations.

The Argument Against Hemp Paper...

Detractors of the annual agricultural production of hemp fiber are just as vocal against growing hemp fiber. They contend that hemp farming is very demanding on the environment and would negate any possible benefits ascribed to it. Hemp fiber would be cost prohibitive when compared to silvicultural production of wood fiber.

Any annual crop demands a period of establishment and reestablishment, during which the site has to be intensely cultivated and treated for weeds and pests. This has to be repeated until the crop is properly established and done on an annual basis for crops like flax, wheat, cotton, or hemp. Most tree species, even if grown on a fast rotation, would mean less site disturbance and have much less need for chemicals; Trees are more forgiving of site preparation, chemical support, and revisits after planting.

Large areas of cultivated fields would be necessary. This would, in itself, mean clearing land of trees and would comprise the best land in terms of fertility and topography. Irrigation would become necessary in some areas for best production. Tending hemp would be expensive and compete for land and other resources.

Dr. Patrick Moore writing on the subject on his web site Greenspirit indicates that "at least twice as much nutrient must be available in an easily assimilable form as will finally be removed from the soil by the leaf-free harvest". Hemp is a nutrient sponge. Crop rotation and the added expense of stripping leaves and flowers would be the desired method of nutrient replacement. All this adds to increased disturbance of the site, the addition of either manure crops or chemical nutrients, and an increase in per acre expense.

The last little kink in the use of hemp for fiber is a significant concern called cost. According to Austrialia's NAFI and Heike Von Der Lancken, "hemp pulp costs $2,500 per ton as compared to $400 per ton for typical bleached wood pulp." This would create the need for another farm subsidy to make costs match.

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