Which Hemp Fiber Product Categories Will Develop First?
An oft-repeated byword among hemp advocates posits that there are over 25,000 different products that can be manufactured from the crop. In actual practice, however, but a fractional amount of those remains in active production today. As has been detailed here before, the hemp fiber industry suffers from a crisis in infrastructure and critical gaps in its supply chains which are stifling product development and stymying growth. The good news is, those gaps are steadily being connected by a host of new fiber-processing companies. As a reliable domestic supply of hemp fiber emerges, the industry is faced with deciding exactly what to do with it, i.e., which product categories to establish first.
In quick summary of the growth prospects for some of the most promising hemp fiber product categories:
Industrial hemp offers carbon-neutral, energy-efficient, and cost-comparable alternatives to traditional construction materials, and 22% of processors polled believed that application to represent the most promising five-year growth potential. Beyond their recognized carbon savings, such materials require relatively unsophisticated processing methods while allowing for more variance in processed fiber quality, making them popular with many processors (most all of whom are just starting out in the market). With a new Presidential Administration seemingly intent on pursuing decarbonization, growth prospects for the market are significant.
Hempcrete, while the best-known construction technology utilizing hemp, faces serious challenges before achieving widespread use. Given strict building codes and comparatively high costs and long timetables for certifying a new construction material, common adoption will be foreseeably stifled until such hurdles are overcome. Indeed, the use of Hempcrete in home building requires a totally different construction methodology than that ordinarily used by characteristically change-resistant contractors. Meanwhile, 1-to-1 replacements to directly supplant existing products (e.g., hemp-based insulation, flooring, particleboard, etc.) offer much better odds of capturing market share during the near term.
Hemp-based biocomposites have been used as automotive parts by several major car manufacturers for over a decade, and their popularity has concurrently increased greatly. In addition to their direct carbon savings, hemp-based automotive parts are stronger and lighter than their alternatives, lowering fuel usage by up to 8%. The amount of emissions savings to be conserved through widespread adoption of biocomposites automotive parts has been estimated at between 150 billion and 220 billion pounds of CO2 per annum, again making it a compelling candidate for the Biden Administration’s Climate Spending Plan, which entails a special focus on the automotive sector. Despite such great potential, however, widespread production of hemp-based automotive parts cannot proceed until quality standards can be determined and adopted by the nascent industry.
Public opinion about plastics has plummeted in recent years as their true environmental costs have begun to be more fully recognized. Companies like The Hemp Plastic Company and Sana Packaging have seen their sales rise significantly over the past few years, but the low cost of petroleum-based alternatives has stifled innovation in the sector. True hemp (i.e., cellulose-based) polymers are feasible, but product development efforts remain in their infancy. So far, the role of hemp in polymers has been limited to serving as additives (i.e., as a filler alternative to wood dust) though hemp biocomposites – not technically plastics – can be used to replace many plastic products. Despite the many challenges facing hemp in the sector, it is a large market, the research looks promising, and carbon-neutral alternatives to petroleum-based plastics are increasingly necessary.
Paper & Pulp
Historically, paper was among the chief uses for hemp fiber. During hemp’s long prohibition, however, the infrastructure for properly processing hemp fiber for hurd fell away entirely. While the pitch for hemp paper over wood-based paper again turns on a question of sustainability, existing environmental regulations make opening new papermaking facilities exceedingly difficult, meaning that the only viable option for most manufacturers would be to retool existing facilities. Though retooling costs are manageable, they entail shutting down a facility for months (or longer) to redesign and recalibrate processes to handle hemp fibers’ strength. For major manufacturers with sprawling supply chains who require continuous production to meet their quotas, that is an untenable proposition. Therefore, in the near term anyway, hemp papermaking is likely to be relegated to niche – if not insignificant – markets such as specialty papers and rolling papers.