Often said to be the ultimate solution to single-use plastics, the potential of hemp is sometimes misconstrued in good faith by cannabis activists and advocates in an effort to destigmatize both the cannabis and hemp plants. Although there are notable benefits to hemp, the same properties can be found within corn and soybean plants at similar levels at a lower cost.
At the moment, corn and soy represent the bulk of the bioplastic market, with corn being the primary crop that provides the cellulose and oils necessary for these bioplastics. Both corn and soy are heavily subsidized in the U.S., creating massive production possibilities at artificially low prices.
While these two crops pose their own problems (they require fertilizers and pesticides that often aren’t great for the environment), hemp would have these hurdles as well if put in the same situation. On top of that, hemp in particular requires a significant amount of water to grow.
Harvesting hemp is also still a very labor-intensive process. For many farmers new to the game, hundreds of thousands of dollars must be spent on modern equipment or have harvesting done by hand. Many farmers lose crops to pests, bad weather, and some plants even need to be destroyed due to exceeding the legal limit of THC levels of 0.3%. During the hemp boom of 2019, there was not enough demand for the crop to justify the plummeting price of the plant for growers.
With this said, it doesn’t look like we’ll meet a sustainable business model for all players in the hemp market for a while. According to Jim Happ, President of Labcon North America, a disposable labware products manufacturer who has collaborated with bioplastics suppliers “petroleum-based polypropylene pellets fluctuate between $1.00-$1.15/pound. If hemp plastics were to compete with petroleum plastics, the price per pound would need to be no more than $1.27/pound. According to Mark Linday at Green Springs Technologies, current market prices for hemp plastic are $2.35/pound.
Until the technology arrives where hemp can be grown and harvested cheaply and rise in demand meets supply, it doesn’t look like the hemp plastic business model can be sustained on a grand enough scale to become our solution.