Hemp has been illegal for decades, but it’s a huge improvement over many common materials.
I got my first introduction to hemp a few years ago when I went to a High NY Meetup. “Hemp: The Technology that will Save our Planet,” the event was billed. Jim Savage, who was in the midst of crowdfunding a tiny hemp home, was evangelizing this building material called hempcrete – made by mixing the inner core of a hemp plant with a lime binder and water. Hemp homes are virtually fireproof, he explained, playing a video of someone taking a blowtorch to a hempcrete wall.
As the man held a flame to the wall, the material became charred, but didn’t catch on fire. Savage went on to explain that in addition to being resistant to fires, hempcrete was also resistant to pests like mice and cockroaches. “They should be building all NYC apartments out of hemp,” I thought, as images of mice and cockroaches swam in my head. At the time, the East Village apartment I was living in had a literal mouse hole in the wall, like something out of a cartoon, but real-life mice were decidedly less endearing than their cartoon counterparts. They were cuter, however, than the army of cockroaches that had made our apartment building their home.
Hemp is a great insulator, explained Savage, because the walls breathe, reducing indoor humidity in the summer and keeping it in during the winter. Not only did hemp capture carbon from the air while it was growing, it could reduce a home’s energy costs.
I did not understand. There’s a building material that is a great insulator, and it could cool down my gross apartment during sticky city summers? Anyone who has lived in a pre-war apartment in New York City knows how extremely not-breathable those buildings are (and has probably winced at a Con-Ed bill once their A/C went up in the windows).
Why aren’t all of our buildings made out of hempcrete?
Hemp can be used in a whole host of consumer goods like cars, textiles, and cosmetics. But thanks to its long association with marijuana — the same species as industrial hemp — growing the crop has been effectively outlawed in the U.S. since the ‘30s.
The tides are finally changing. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on Monday that he would introduce legislation alongside Senator Rand Paul to legalize hemp by removing it from the list of controlled substances, where cannabis sits alongside psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA, and heroin. That two Republican senators from a Bible Belt state are championing this issue shows just how far we’ve come on issues of cannabis.
Kentucky hemp farmer Mike Lewis credits the Kentucky senators for inserting language into the Farm Bill that legalized hemp production for agricultural pilot programs or academic research. The bill passed in 2014 — about a month after the first marijuana dispensaries opened in Colorado. Even then, Lewis had to contend with the DEA and wary family members.
“For the first two or three years… I experienced this stigma that we’re farming pot,” said Lewis, who is a military veteran and the founder of Growing Warriors.
After a brief legal battle with the DEA, which tried to prevent a shipment of hemp seeds to the state, Lewis started farming hemp and has been advocating for the crop. Still, he deals with similar challenges as his counterparts in the state-legal marijuana industry: “The big thing was having a couple of our bank accounts shut down,” he said. “That’s the most difficult challenge.”
Lewis says his crops are mostly going producing textiles and grain. “Cotton is about 2 to 3 percent of global agricultural production, but uses 25 percent of the petrochemical inputs,” much of which goes towards the fast fashion industry, he explained. unlike cotton, hemp is not heavily pesticide-dependent and requires significantly less water to produce. (it would also provide an alternative to acrylics, which are popular in fast fashion but add microplastics to our water every time they are laundered.)
But using hemp to make textiles wasn’t easy. Lewis said it took a year to figure out how to use hemp to produce textiles locally. “It wasn’t difficult because we had to take on the federal government,” he said. “It’s difficult because the entire textile industry is built on cotton.”
“Humans are adding 40 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year,” said Bruce Dietzen, the CEO of Renew Sports Cars. The retired Dell executive-turned entrepreneur constructed a custom sports car out of hemp and thinks that it’s the best solution we have for mitigating climate change.
“Making everything we possibly can from crops like cannabis hemp including our cars, our fuels, our homes, our clothing and thousands of other things could well be our most effective means of sequestering CO2 out of the atmosphere,” said Dietzen. If just one-third of the amount of stuff humans produce were made with plant materials, we could pull out more than 3 billion tons of CO2 per year out of the atmosphere, according to his calculations.
Even if the feds legalize hemp, the barriers of mainstream adoption remain. Whether it’s homes or cars or clothes, producing consumer products out of hemp is more expensive (for now). Automotive companies are not mass manufacturing cars out of the hemp — although automakers like BMW have incorporated the material into some parts of its vehicles.
Consumers haven’t been able to shell out cash to buy one of Dietzen’s custom cars, and most banks are unwilling to finance it. “Most people don’t have $50,000 lying around,” said Dietzen, so his next project — a cannabis e-bike – aims for affordability. “There has to be financial incentives to do this… Instead of subsidizing oil companies, give tax breaks to companies to build greener cars,” he said.
Simply legalizing hemp won’t be enough.
“There’s this myth that if we all just start growing hemp, we’ll save the planet,” said Lewis. But simply planting more hemp doesn’t change the infrastructure problems that exist in the production of these consumer products.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to be us changing as people and not just changing what we’re using.”
By Mona Zhang