Insights into the sustainability of hemp fibers, the problems with the production chain and how hemp fits into the circular economy
According to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), nearly 100% of all used clothing and household textiles can be reused or recycled. In Europe, where the consumption of textiles is thought to be approximately equal to twenty-five kilograms per person every year, figures reveal that only four to five kilograms are reused or recycled. The textile industry is one of the biggest producers of waste. Dr Malgorzata Zimniewska, professor at the Institute of Natural Fibers & Medicinal Plants and the leader of hemp textile research team explains how fabrics made from hemp, a variant of the Cannabis Sativa plant, is a sustainable, reusable option with opportunities for growth. Speaking on day three of the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA) conference, Dr Zimniewska’s presentation, Hemp Textiles – challenges and opportunities, explored the process of making hemp fabrics, the benefits of using it and the challenges that sector has to contend with. Dr Zimniewska, explains that hemp fabrics which are made from the outer layer of the rope-like bast fibers of the hemp plant, have a texture similar to texture to cotton but that it is three times stronger than cotton fabric making it a much more durable choice. In terms of cultivation and production, hemp fabrics don’t cost more than producing other fabrics. Hemp, which requires a small amount of land for cultivation, can produce up to double the fiber yield per hectare than cotton according to the Guide to Sustainable Textiles. Once the Cannabis sativa plants which grow well in mild climates – making Europe a favorable choice for its cultivation – are harvested using a special machine, the fibers are separated from the stalks through the process of retting before being carded into strands and cleaned to remove impurities. Once cleaned, the same processes used to make other fabrics are also used to make hemp fabric.
The advantages of using hemp textiles and its potential for growing
The Green Deal Strategy which aims to achieve climate neutrality in Europe by 2050 through the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions extends to several different sectors including construction, biodiversity, energy, transport and food. What do hemp textiles have to do with this? While crops like cotton require heavy irrigation, hemp consumes much less water in both cultivation and production. Hemp, which requires less than fifty percent of the water than cotton does for cultivation, also makes minimal use of chemicals thus reducing soil erosion due to water logging. Hemp can be grown in all types of soil, both maintaining and restoring soil health. Resistant to pests and UV rays, hemp which uses its own fallen leaves as fertilizers is also biodegradable, making it a sustainable option which can be utilized in the path towards the Green Deal. These inherent properties of hemp which make it gentle on the Earth is one of the major reasons for the increased global interest on hemp-based products, says Dr Zimniewska. Due to a sustainable method of cultivation, which allows farmers to grow multiple cycles of hemp on the same land and also plant it as part of crop rotations, hemp fibers are a renewable resource with high potential in terms of textile application. Another advantage is that the crop’s naturally high carbon dioxide production – it breathes in four times more of the gas than any other plant – means that the fiber is carbon negative. In terms of consumer use, the antioxidant and antibiotic properties of the fiber prevents the growth of odor-causing bacteria on fabrics and its antimicrobial properties allow it to last longer than other textile fibers like cotton, polyester, etc. In addition to being resistant to microbes, mold and mildew, hemp clothes are also functional, pro-health textiles due to its resistance to UV rays. With an ability to grow easily and its multiple uses across several industries including paper, biodegradable plastic, construction, health food, automobiles, chemical clean-ups and fuel etc., hemp fibers have, according to extensive research, shown potential to change and positively impact entire global industries. By tapping into the qualities of the hemp plant which allows it to grow with minimal maintenance, farmers can create a closed loop cultivation system that makes cascade use of the plant as well as effectively avoids and manages waste during processing stages. This can be achieved only by investing in the improvement of its production chain of converting raw hemp fiber into fabric.
Hemp’s circular economy and challenges in the textile industry
Circularity means no waste exists. This is how nature works. It is human beings who leave waste by using nature’s resources. If we are to re-design our environment and economy to achieve circularity such that atmospheric carbon is reduced, stored and then recycled, one pathway is through the cultivation of hemp. As Dr Zimniewska says «Hemp materials are designed to be recycled, produce less waste and have a longer life». As previously established, hemp is a fast-growing plant with the ability to sequester an average of zero-point-six-seven tons of carbon dioxide per hectare every year from the atmosphere. This means that used in a sustainable manner and turned into consistent, durable material, hemp can store carbon for its lifetime, thus reducing carbon in the atmosphere. If used to substitute more carbon-intensive materials and products it could have a net-positive impact on global carbon reductions goals. In addition to being long-lasting as well as benefiting soil and water regimes, because hemp can be cultivated even in areas of lower fertility, it has allowed focus of agricultural subsidies to be shifted from diary, sweet corn and wheat, thus fostering better connections and enhanced circularity between different economic sectors including textile but also tourism, education, construction and agro-forestry. Bridging gaps between agricultural, industrial and economic uses, hemp with its multiple uses and ability to avoid pollution in the recycling loop is well equipped to demonstrate circularity and kickstart a circular economy. Despite the momentum built towards new science insights and marketable products, the production of hemp textiles continues to have challenges, more in particular in the current production chain. Upscaling circular hemp systems requires a scalable supply of quality-controlled hemp fibers which the fabric industry still lacks. Despite being sustainable and producing less waste than other fabric alternatives like cotton, the manufacture of hemp textiles beyond the carding stage still make use of dyes which use alum – obtained from chemically treating alunite or natural clays – even in the case of natural dyes. To make hemp textiles truly sustainable in the long run, there needs to be more investment so that the industry processes such as dyeing are carried out more responsibly. Another challenge faced at industry level is the lack of availability of machinery for the harvesting and processing of hemp at each level. Dr Zimniewska, explains, «There is a necessity to construct machines for harvesting hemp fibers, turbines for fiber scutching, hacking machines for long fibers, wet spinning frame and others to complete the technological chain». Dr Zimniewska adds that the procurement of machinery can be done only by creating an effective system to encourage stakeholders to invest in hemp fiber and textile production.
Lampoon reporting: the impact of hemp on the environment
Beyond the production stage, the impact of hemp on the environment is also dependent on the consumer’s role in the fabric’s life cycle. While natural fibers like hemp are recyclable, the use of dyes, treatments, and other blended fibers makes postconsumer recycling difficult. Research indicates that forty-eight percent are used as second-hand clothing, with the rest usually ending up in landfills. In the case of hemp textiles, whatever is recycled has been found to be downcycled rather than upcycled. In order to make hemp textiles truly sustainable in the long run, waste and scraps as well as worn clothing needs to be repurposed and remanufactured, rather than being just reused in other applications. Speaking of challenges, Dr Zimniewska also highlights the requirement to develop society awareness in terms of the role played by hemp textiles in both human health and environmental protection. Another issue that highlights is the lack of data when it comes to the value of a hemp-driven circular bio-economy in local, regional or global levels. One of the ways in which more data and awareness on the scalable growth and market potential of the hemp textile landscape can be created according to Dr Zimniewska is by «developing links between young and older generations to facilitate knowledge transfer by including hemp in the education system through holistic approaches such as training courses». Though hemp is agriculturally primed to be a long-term, sustainable solution, changes that reflect the shortcomings of the entire textile industry that implement an ecological design aimed at improving circularity and extending lifetimes of products, as well as making full use of hemp’s natural ability to be repaired, remanufactured and reused is needed to realize the full potential of the hemp textile industry.
The annual EIHA conference is established as the largest meeting of experts on industrial hemp in Europe and worldwide. Lampoon Magazine works as Media Partner, supporting EIHA.