Hemp Paper Could Be the Future of Printing

A hybrid hemp, tree-free paper suitable for book publishing is to be premiered at the London Book Fair.
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A joint project to produce tree-free letterpress paper suitable for commercial printing has delivered one of the first commercially viable hemp papers on the planet. The project was conceived by Maren Krings, a photographer and environmental activist who was writing a book on industrial hemp. Her research led her to a German paper manufacturer called Hahnemühle. 

The development of the hemp paper now on offer to others as well as the success of the project are mentioned in her new book, H is for Hemp, along with other adventures Maren undertook as she wrote the book in a five-year journey around the world.

The book is intended as a reference guide for those interested in the history of industrial hemp as well as its modern uses.

Hahnemühle is now offering its new hemp paper for both offset and high-speed inkject printing and as a viable alternative to the more expensive tree-based products still used widely in the book publishing industry.

They are not the only manufacturer, even in Germany, offering industrial grade hemp paper. At least one other company, Gmund, makes a similar paper product, although they have so far not promoted their wares with quite the same finesse.

The Benefits of Hemp Paper

While the world continues on a steady path to digitalization, paper is still a widely used commodity—and far from “just” book publishing. Compared to wood, hemp has fiber which is four to five times longer. This results in paper which is much stronger than that made from trees. However, the paper industry has traditionally used machines and tools to turn wood pulp into paper which do not work as well with hemp fiber.

For this reason, and because industrial hemp is still a crop in its infancy, hemp paper is still more expensive than wood-based products. That said, one field of hemp produces four to five times as much paper as a forest of the same size. Indeed, hemp produces more biomass than any other domestic crop.

Beyond this, hemp uses fewer herbicides since it eliminates weeds on its own.

Only the male hemp plant is used for paper-making. This is because the female plant is used for consumption and extraction.

A New Focus on Industrial Hemp

As laws in Europe become more homogenized, there is increasing interest in making products out of hemp that stretch far beyond paper. This includes everything from fuel to clothing, bioplastics to insulation.

One of the most compelling reasons for turning to the plant for these uses—beyond food and medication—is that industrial hemp offers multiple benefits over more “traditional” materials, including not only being less polluting, but also more environmentally friendly.

Hemp uses less water than other crops. It can even be used specifically to clean up both air and soil pollution beyond the products that can be produced from the same. One hectare of hemp sequesters between 9-15 metric tons of CO2—which is similar to the amount sequestered by a young forest of the same size. Hemp, of course, grows far faster. In fact, hemp grows about as fast as bamboo, making it among the fastest growing crops on the planet.

With a world now struggling with finding new sources of energy, there are likely to be many more products made out of hemp, and further on an industrial scale to begin to compete in price with more conventional products.

In recent years, according to data from the European Commission, hemp cultivation has significantly increased over the last eight or nine years. Indeed, the area used to cultivate the plant has grown from 19,970 hectares in 2015 to 34,960 in 2019. France is the largest producer in the EU, accounting for more than 70% of all hemp cultivated in the region. Netherlands comes in second with 10%. Austria follows up in third with 4%.

There is a single lobbying group for the region on an EU level called the European Industrial Hemp Association, or EIHA, located in Brussels.

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