Hemp By-Products: Risk or Treasure?
As more countries are legalising the consumption of CBD, the production of industrial hemp—the cannabis variety that produces CBD—is expected to grow exponentially. Accordingly, hemp by-products, from agricultural waste to discarded packaging, are also expected to rise dramatically.
The global market for CBD is expected to surpass $100 bn by 2027.
The market for industrial hemp is currently estimated to be around $5.33 bn, with an expectation that it will reach $15 bn by 2027. The major hemp-producing countries are China, Canada, the United States, France, and Chile. The UK CBD market is only second to the American one: it was valued at £690 million for the year ending in April 2021.
Due to the legal framework of the British market, hemp cultivation in the UK has fallen behind. The law requires hemp producers to discard the flowers and leaves of industrial hemp plants. This means that British hemp producers cannot direct their hemp for CBD production, which makes cultivating hemp in the UK a far less profitable endeavour than it should be.
It also means that the UK imports hemp flowers from other hemp-producing countries. CBD manufacturers process imported hemp into CBD products that are sold throughout the British market.
Even so, there is a need to address the growing issue of hemp cultivation and CBD production by-products.
What are the by-products of hemp production?
There are three different types of hemp by-products that require attention:
- First, the agricultural waste from hemp production. This includes the stalks, leaves, root balls, and other plant parts that have not been used for CBD production.
- Second, there are the by-products produced from CBD extraction. During extraction, the hemp leaves and flowers are dried and then processed to extract CBD and the other cannabinoids found in hemp. The various extraction processes use ethanol, butane, and other chemicals that have to be processed post-production.
- Last, there is increasing concern about safely recycling packaging such as jars, tubes, and plastic containers that contain CBD. This should be done with care because some CBD products contain traces of THC—albeit below the legal threshold of 0.2%—and here are potential issues of THC contamination of other recyclable materials.
Added to these are environmental concerns. There is a heated discussion about what to do with these hemp by-products and how to make sure we use methods of production and disposal that are carbon neutral and environmentally friendly. With the expected increase in hemp production and CBD consumption, this conversation is becoming increasingly important.
Let’s examine the various types of hemp by-products in detail.
Agricultural waste from industrial hemp
CBD is produced from the flowers and leaves of industrial hemp. Bearing in mind that hemp grows up to 16 feet, a lot of plant material is left behind after harvest.
This type of by-product is not as important in the UK, which produces relatively small quantities of industrial hemp. However, leftover plant material is also the most promising in terms of industrial applications and uses.
Agricultural hemp waste includes stalks, leaves, root balls, and soil that were produced during a hemp cycle. Hemp is a fast-growing annual plant that reaches maturity within 120 to 160 days. Therefore, it generates a lot of agricultural waste on an annual basis.
Waste produced post-production
Every production process leaves behind waste. In the case of CBD extraction, post-production waste includes by-products such as ethanol or butane as well as oils, waxes, chlorophyll, and other plant compounds that were extracted from hemp.
Post-production waste also includes failed products that did not reach the shelves: CBD products that did not meet quality controls, faulty CBD products that failed to pass their lab tests, or CBD products whose THC content was above the legal threshold.
When considering post-production waste, let’s not forget the necessary accessories to CBD production: gloves, jars, beakers, and any other material that may need to be discarded after production.
Packaging of CBD products
Waste is also produced from CBD consumption. Such by-products include tubes, tins, containers, plastic packaging, bags, droppers, etc.
What can hemp producers do with hemp by-products?
When it comes to agricultural waste, hemp farmers can compost hemp, send the agricultural waste to a landfill, or send it to an incinerator.
Again, some choices can be limiting. In the case of composting, if hemp cultivation used pesticides, then composting could be problematic. Similarly, landfills are the easiest option but not the most environmentally friendly. The same can be said of incineration.
In the case of post-production by-products, there are specific companies that are licensed to process these hemp by-products. Usually, these companies decontaminate the by-products before sending them to a landfill or other waste disposal facility.
Keeping in mind the growing concern about our environmental footprint, these options are helpful but not optimal. When we consider the expected increase in hemp production, it becomes obvious that hemp by-products will only increase and new, creative solutions will have to be found.
Thankfully, many such solutions are already available.
What are environmentally-friendly ways to use hemp agricultural waste?
Industrial hemp became illegal in the 1930s. Until then, hemp was traditionally used to produce sails, rope, paper, textiles, and other necessary fibres. George Washington grew hemp in his estate and used it for fishing nets, rope, and textiles. He did not grow hemp for its cannabinoid content but for its industrial uses. At a time when cotton was not widely produced, hemp was an easy and cheap alternative.
Now that hemp agricultural waste is expected to intensify, businesses are looking into novel ways to process this by-product. An acre of four-month-old hemp can produce over four times more usable fibres than an acre of 20-year-old trees. What can we do with all those fibres instead of discarding them?
Nowadays, innovative companies use hemp to produce construction insulation and materials, plastics, textiles, and even car parts. These businesses looked at the traditional uses of hemp and took them one step further.
Hemp for textile fibres comparable to cotton
A British company called SeFF Fibre produces textiles from hemp that can easily challenge the predominance of cotton. Their method produces fine hemp fibres in a less polluting way. Instead of planting hemp just to produce textiles, SeFF Fibre takes that by-product and turns it into usable material.
This has great potential, especially when we take into consideration what the alternative is. Cotton is highly polluting to produce, as it uses a lot of water and many pesticides. It is also an annual plant in temperate climates. This means that every time it is planted, it requires additional amounts of water and pesticides.
Using hemp by-products instead offers a sustainable, environmentally friendly way of producing quality textiles.
A quick and sustainable method to produce hemp fibres
An American firm called 9Fiber has developed a method to decontaminate hemp agricultural waste from all cannabinoids in less than 2 minutes. The whole process of decorticating to produce usable fibres takes less than three hours.
The company has developed a method that doesn’t use harsh chemicals or bleaching materials. Depending on the intended use, they soften the hemp and produce various qualities and consistencies of hemp fibres that can be used in textiles, car applications, bio-plastics, building insulation, and paper.
As these processes become cheaper and more widespread, hemp agricultural waste should become easier to use and more profitable.
Hemp instead of concrete
In an effort to help the building and construction industries, an American business called Hempitecture has developed several uses for hemp agricultural waste. Hemp fibres have been turned into insulation, concrete, and other building materials.
By developing plant-based construction materials, they are utilizing a by-product that would otherwise go unnoticed and unused. Their efforts aim at creating buildings that are more sustainable but still offer the same high quality of living.
A novel way to use post-production by-products
In a particularly innovative way, a Canadian charity called Kindness 3D takes cannabis packaging—in this case, not only from CBD products but also from THC-high products—and turns it into prosthetic limbs. They decontaminate the packaging from THC and other cannabinoids and mould it into a usable product.
Future uses for hemp by-products
There is an increased and urgent need to utilize more of what is left behind. Rather than producing more waste, we need to be clever about how we use the existing one. Instead of planting new cotton, extracting cement, or cutting down trees, people are exploring novel ways to maintain our high quality of life by using existing by-products and materials.
A number of applications for hemp by-products are being researched at the moment, ranging from ethanol to plastics and even car parts.
Ethanol from hemp
Fuel extraction is costly and polluting. Just like with corn ethanol, research is shifting towards fermenting hemp to produce ethanol that can be used as fuel. Hemp agricultural waste could well turn out to be an environmentally friendly bio-fuel.
Plastics from hemp
Plastic is usually made from petrol. Again, petrol extraction is expensive and polluting. Researchers are now developing plastic pellets that are made from hemp by-products. As the world moves away from fossil fuels but still needs plastic products, hemp could prove to be a helpful ingredient, especially when it comes to 3D printing.
In past centuries, when paper production from trees was too expensive, paper was made regularly from hemp.
We currently cut down 7 billion trees to produce the paper we use globally. With climate change a worrying reality, trees have become too important to cut them down just for paper. They take years, if not decades, to grow back, whereas hemp is a fast-growing annual plant that can produce good quality paper within months.
With better and more efficient technology, we could produce usable paper without destroying forests. Although new trees are planted for the ones cut down, hemp still remains more environmentally friendly.
Building with hemp
The first steps of building with hemp have already been taken, with insulation and building materials now available on the market. New technologies are emerging on further uses for hemp fibres. Since trees are precious, how about hemp flooring and furniture?
Wooden floors are beautiful to look at and walk on. They tend to be made of oak, ash, or maple wood. This requires trees to be cut down and processed to produce flooring. Instead of cutting mature trees, which took half a century to grow, we could make hemp flooring that is just as strong and well insulated.
Thanks to hemp’s short growth period, we can have usable fibres much faster than waiting for an oak tree to grow. And since we already use hemp’s flowers and leaves for CBD, we would be using something that would normally be thrown away.
Hemp is both strong and a good insulator. Its strength is comparable to steel’s when taking into consideration the strength-to-weight ratio.
Car efficiency partly depends on the weight of the car. Lighter cars consume less fuel than heavier ones. But we still want our cars to be safe and protect us in case of an accident. Mercedes-Benz is already using hemp to produce car parts because of hemp’s lightweight and great strength.
This shift is producing far less CO2 as fewer metals are extracted and processed for car extraction. And we also avoid filling our landfills with hemp agricultural waste.
Hemp by-products could have multiple uses
Given the changing mentalities around hemp, reflected in legislation such as the MORE Act, it is expected that hemp cultivation and CBD production will be growing for the foreseeable future.
However, with CBD come agricultural waste and post-production hemp by-products. Human ingenuity and the urgent need to find novel ways to manufacture products with the least carbon footprint and in the most sustainable way have created innovative uses for hemp by-products.
As we shift our mental map away from fossil fuels, cotton, and other unsustainable production methods, hemp can help lessen our environmental footprint while still maintaining our high standard of living and quality of life.