Where Might Hemp Fiber Products Make the Biggest Dent in Emissions

By Trevor Yahn-Grode, Data Analyst, New Frontier Data

While the industry waits to see how hemp fiber product categories first find their footing in the marketplace, it might prove instructive to view those product categories in terms of how significantly they play into the United States’ total carbon emissions, and review how hemp fiber products may disrupt various industries, ranked by their total annual emissions.

Bioplastics – 1.8 billion tons 

Biodegradable plastics, derived from plant material, are recognized as essential toward achieving a net-zero emissions economy, as the manufacturing of chemical polymers is annually responsible for at least 1.8 billion tons of CO2e emissions. Eventually, through the use of biomaterials, plastic could become a carbon sink – storing more CO2 than it takes to produce. Industrial hemp advocates claim that the plant’s high biomass yields and relatively low water needs make it uniquely well-suited for plastics manufacturing. Consumer products made from hemp plastics – i.e., cutlery, straws, Frisbees, automotive components, etc. –have slowly gained acceptance in the marketplace, but their growth remains limited due to a constrained supply of processed fiber and high price premiums. Currently, the use of hemp in polymers is primarily as an additive designed to reduce the overall need for petroleum, though the technology exists to produce pure cellulose-based plastic from natural fibers, and the production process is steadily getting cheaper.

Paper & Pulp – 1.48 billion tons 

Americans use an estimated 85 million tons of paper a year, almost all derived from harvested lumber from forests. The ecological costs of using forestlands for paper and pulp production is significant, annually amounting to 1.48 billion tons of CO2e emissions, and costing more than a billion trees worldwide each year. Critics note an inherent conflict between harvesting forests for lumber versus conserving forests for ecological stability, and that utilizing natural fiber crops in lieu of harvested lumber would reduce deforestation and contribute to battling climate change.

Though a longstanding myth that an acre of hemp can produce 4x more paper per acre than trees is inaccurate, hemp fiber’s strength and durability do make it uniquely well-suited for certain paper applications – particularly packaging, as the fibers’ strength can mean less required material for boxes. Today in the U.S., hemp paper and pulp operations are the most developed part of the fiber supply chain, with many small- to medium-size companies (mostly based in Western states) engaged in their manufacturing and sales.

Commercial & Residential Construction – 1.45 billion tons

Traditional construction materials (e.g., fiberglass insulation, drywall, and wood flooring) are responsible for nearly as much emissions as the energy-inefficient homes they are used to build, annually emitting 1.45 billion tons of CO2e in the U.S. Industrial hemp-based products claim to offer carbon-neutral, energy efficient, and cost-comparable alternatives to the materials. Products like HempWool – a cellulose-based hemp insulation – are quickly gaining popularity in a marketplace increasingly aware of (and financially impacted by) its carbon footprint. That adoption has been limited due to cheap competition from emissions-heavy alternative materials, but with the Biden administration’s climate plan specifically naming green buildings as a key part of getting the U.S. to net-zero carbon neutrality, advocates are bullish that government support can help hemp products achieve price parity, and become a key material in the construction of new buildings.

Simply focusing on building new structures, however, ignores a core issue of sustainability: improving what has already been made is often preferable to producing more materials and building new structures. Therefore, retrofitting existing homes and businesses to be energy-efficient will be a critical focus if the country is going to meet the Biden administration’s climate goals. Hemp-based products like insulation, flooring, particleboard, and various cardboard and packaging products can replace environmentally costly construction materials without breaking the bank, and without altering existing construction guidelines.

Automotive Industry

Biocomposite automotive parts – perhaps chief among products which can be manufactured from hemp fiber – represent a one-two punch against carbon emissions. First, carbon dioxide is sequestered directly through photosynthesis as hemp undergoes its growth cycle, and then gets trapped inside the structure of whatever product is being manufactured.

Second, biocomposite automotive parts can reduce the weight of an automobile by up to 25% without sacrificing any strength or functionality, thereby increasing fuel efficiency. Multiple studies – most notably one conducted by the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands – estimate that the fuel savings associated with widespread adoption of biocomposite materials in automobiles at between 150 and 220 billion pounds of CO2 per annum.

Note that such estimates do not factor in the amount of carbon saved through opportunity costs. Nearly one-third of carbon emissions from petroleum-based composites stem not from the manufacture of a product, but from the emissions required to extract and refine the petroleum in the first place.

However impressive the materials may sound, it is important to note that any large-scale initiative against emissions will still follow the rules of the free market: Namely, it must compete on price. Fortunately for the hemp market, hemp-based automotive parts are already price-competitive with fossil-fuel-based materials, and are in use today by major auto manufacturers (e.g., BMW and Mercedes).

A Hemp-Composite Door Panel from a BMW 7 Series

Hemp-based biocomposites have applications beyond cars. Trains, planes, buses – even rockets – can profit from the integration of hemp-based biocomposites. The use of biocomposites in transport vehicles is essential to achieving quality, zero-emission public transportation.

Beyond the utility of hemp-based composites in consumer vehicles, emissions savings could be magnified when applied to public transit. Public transport vehicles, being much larger, are significantly more sensitive to weight reduction than their consumer counterparts, meaning that the fuel savings will be proportionally higher: The bigger the vehicle, the greater the emissions savings.