Hemp & Plastic: Why Biodegradable Plastic Is Important for Our Health and the Environment & Interview with James Eichner
The following article and interview with Sana Packaging were submitted to be published at an online magazine, as part of an issue that was focusing on Hemp. Unfortunately, soon after the submission, I parted ways from the editorial team of the magazine; as a result, I was informed that they wouldn’t publish any of my contributions. However, I decided to publish the article, and the interview, here and share, what I consider to be an essential message.
What About Hemp & Plastic?
“The best hemp and the best tobacco grow on the same kind of soil. The former article is of the first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country. The latter, never useful.” Thomas Jefferson
Hemp’s history is tethered to the development of civilization, according to the advancedholistichealth.org website, the use of the hemp plant goes back thousands of years, about 1000 B.C. to late 1800’s A.C.; their site displays a long list of how hemp was used through the ages. From being part of ancient pottery to food, medicine, textile, fuel, paper, and even plastic; hemp has provided humans with extensive uses worldwide. Apart from its versatility, hemp is also one of the best plants for Carbon sequestration; one acre of hemp can trap up to 1.5 metric tons of Carbon. Yes, forestry also traps Carbon, however, hemp has a much rapid growth rate, it’s less costly to maintain and simply put, hemp is better at carbon sequestering.
According to the hempqueen.ca website, in only 100 days hemp reaches 12 feet tall, it can grow in a variety of soil types and conditions; making it a lot more versatile than cotton.
Furthermore, hemp can be used in crop rotation, it keeps the soil clean, farmers can grow hemp in only 20 weeks, as oppose to the 20-year-growth-rate of trees; and, just one acre of hemp can be used to produce the same amount of pulp to make paper as four acres of trees.
Hemp seeds are both delicious and highly nutritious, and their oil produces high-quality biodegradable plastic.
Doesn’t this plant sound great?
Sadly, due to political and economic interests of petroleum corporations such as DuPont,
during Hoover’s presidency in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Cannabis was classified as a schedule 1 drug. Yes, Cannabis is the plant that provides that influx of dopamine into our brain once the psychoactive THC interacts with our endocannabinoid system; however, that is just one strand of Cannabis. What may not be common knowledge, and what investors, CEOs, and lobbyists used to their advantage back then, is that hemp also belongs to the Cannabis family.
According to the ministryofhemp.com website, the difference between marijuana and hemp, apart from their function and cultivation, is their chemical makeup. Marijuana has a THC concentration of about five to 35 percent, while hemp has less than a point three percent concentration of THC. The psychoactive component of Cannabis made it easy to label both species as ‘demonic’ in the 1930s, soon after that, it was illegal to use hemp -and marijuana, of course -in any way, shape or form. By removing the versatile threat that hemp represented to the various corporations that were starting to develop at the time, many of the materials used today, plastic, for example, are petroleum-based and non-biodegradable.
Before acquiring the demonic label that sent hemp into the shadows of commercialism, the low-THC-Cannabis strand co-existed harmoniously with its competitors. The what-when-how.com website, shows that plastic came about around 1868 when John Wesley Hyatt came upon a mixture of different polymers -a substance consisting of a chain of units bonded together -that still contained some natural products such as nitrated cellulose; the structure of this transparent, colorless and solid material was introduced into the market. This new product was “perfectly suited” for making billiard balls; it was meant to replace natural materials such as ivory. Fast forward 39 years, and Leo Baekeland was the first to invent a fully synthetic form of plastic. However, it wasn’t until after WWII that, as the website sciencehistory.org shows, plastic began to replace other goods and household items; it slowly crept up on society and became an unavoidable part of everyday life. Inevitably, the first plastic debris was first observed in the 1960s. Just two decades later, the cheap-conformity-waste increased, prompting the plastic industry to introduce and promote recycling in the 1980s; unfortunately, it wasn’t a solution, and most of the plastic still ended up in landfills, oceans, lakes, parks, etc.
The rapid conglomeration of the synthetic polymer is what leads to the well-known, Texas-sized Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Currently, there are 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, according to a National Geographic article “A Whopping 91% of Plastic Isn’t Recycled,” published last year. The article also mentions that the seas contain about 51 trillion microplastic particles, which is 500 times more than the stars in our Galaxy! It is estimated that by 2050 there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic polluting the Earth.
Moreover, the chemicals used in the production of plastic are detrimental to our health,
they may disrupt our endocrine system and even lead to cancer. Components such as BPA and phthalates pass onto our bodies, food, water, and the air we breathe. Don’t get us started on the harm plastic causes marine and land creatures alike! We’ve all seen the heartbreaking videos of animals deformed by plastic or suffocated by it.
Though the plastic industry has a stronghold on our economy, being aware of this issue is the first step. Hemp is a wonderful biodegradable replacement, though its illegal status and low demand keep the prices up, with time and proper legislation, hemp will become more affordable and available to us all.
Stay aware and help save the Planet, #breakfreefromplastic!
Interview with James Eichner founder and CEO of Sana Packaging
Meet Sana Packaging -A Plastic Alternative
While doing research for one of the articles for this Hemp issue, I came across this company. Sana Packaging provides the Cannabis Industry with 100% plant-based, chemical-free plastic. As I read through their story on the www.sanapackaging.comwebsite, I felt drawn to their commitment statement:
“Our commitment to sustainability goes beyond simply offering ecologically-conscious products. We envision a world where our bodies, natural environment, and oceans are not polluted with toxic waste. We believe packaging should be regenerative and help heal the environment throughout its lifecycle.”
I just had to reach out and find out more about them.
Words With the Wind (missej_jessim): In the Sana Packaging website, it says that the idea to start Sana Packaging started as a college project. Could you expand on that? What prompted you guys to take on such a project?
Sana Packaging (SP): Ron and I met during our MBA program at CU Boulder, and Sana Packaging started as a class project for our Sustainable Venturing class. Basically, we were frustrated with cannabis consumers. We were sick of all the cannabis packaging waste accumulating in our apartments, and we knew there had to be a more sustainable alternative to petroleum plastic packaging. We just had to figure out what that was, and that’s how we came upon hemp plastic as a packaging material.
We ended up winning a class pitch competition at the end of the semester and that gave us the confidence boost we needed to pursue our idea outside of the classroom. Hunter Lovins was one of the judges, and her words of encouragement were music to our ears. We ended up applying to the CanopyBoulder accelerator program a few weeks later and we were part of their 2017 Spring Cohort. We’ve been working on Sana Packaging full-time ever since.
(missej_jessim): How long has Sana Packaging been working on providing the cannabis industry with 100% plant-based packaging?
(SP): We started working on Sana Packaging as an MBA class project at CU Boulder during the 2016 fall semester. Then, we applied to the CanopyBoulder accelerator program and were part of their 2017 Spring Cohort. We actually graduated from our MBA program and CanopyBoulder the same week in May 2017.
Since then, we’ve closed a seed round and designed, developed, and launched our first two 100% plant-based hemp plastic cannabis packaging products – the Sana Tube and the Sana Container. We just started fulfilling our first batch of orders mid-July 2018. Our mentors and advisors told us countless times that few things are more difficult for entrepreneurs than surviving their first product launch. I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish thus far.
I guess the short answer is we’ve been working on Sana Packaging for about two years and launched our first products in July 2018. J
(missej_jessim): Why isn’t the product available to companies outside the cannabis industry?
(SP): The cannabis industry is already on its way to generating billions of units of petroleum plastic packaging waste per year. However, as a rapidly growing and emerging industry, we believe the cannabis industry can be a platform for positive economic, social, and environmental change. We have an opportunity to make sustainable packaging the norm in this industry, but we need to act now – before the cannabis industry becomes like every other packaging-intensive industry. That’s one of the big reasons we’re focusing on cannabis packaging.
We also have a captive audience because most people in the cannabis industry are familiar with industrial hemp, its myriad of uses, and its potential as a feedstock for plant-based packaging materials. Also, hemp plastic is a relatively new technology and the cannabis industry is a great environment in which to develop and refine hemp bioplastic as a packaging material. When the time is right, we absolutely plan on expanding outside of the cannabis industry.
(missej_jessim): What environmental and economical differences have you noticed after starting Sana Packaging?
(SP): I think I was always aware of our global plastic problem, but I didn’t truly become passionate about it until I started working on Sana Packaging. Ron, on the other hand, has always been obsessed with plastic waste. Ron’s dad is a veterinarian, so he grew up helping him around the office and was always disturbed by the amount of plastic waste in the veterinarian industry (i.e. prescription bottles).
My mind was blown when I learned that since we began mass-producing plastics in the 1950s we’ve created over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic. And of these 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, only 9% has been recycled while 79% has ended up in our landfills and natural environment. If we don’t address this problem, by 2050 there will be over 12 billion metric tons of plastic polluting our landfills and natural environment.
Furthermore, 50% of the plastic we create is for disposable products, like the packaging. And when you look at the packaging, only 40% of packaging waste is recovered while 60% is landfilled. This is obviously terrible from an environmental perspective, but it’s also terrible from an economic perspective because it represents billions of dollars in lost profits in the form of unrecovered materials. The problem is even worse when we single out plastic packaging because 95% of plastic packaging material value is lost after its first-use cycle. That’s the equivalent of $80-$120 billion per year.
So, there are a lot of problems to address here. Primarily the feedstocks we’re using to make packaging materials and the efficiency of our waste recovery systems. Looking first at the feedstocks we’re using, it’s clear that we need to transition away from fossil-based feedstocks and start using bio-based feedstocks. That’s why we’re so excited about hemp – not only is it biobased, but it’s more sustainable than other industrial crops. It also has the potential to become a new cash crop and reinvigorate economically stifled agricultural communities across the United States (and the world).
Out waste recovery systems are a whole other issue. For reference, 51% of municipal solid waste in the United States is compostable but we’re only able to compost 5% of that waste. The bottom line is we need to address these issues. And with that in mind, an interesting opportunity is emerging in the United States due to the growing number of biomass energy plants coming online. Wood chips, a key ingredient for composters, are now less available because they’re being redirected to biomass energy plants. This opens the door for compostable packaging to become more widely accepted by composters and composters with volume-based pricing stand to make a lot of profit by accepting compostable packaging.
(missej_jessim): The website also mentions that Sana Packaging is a proud “Made in USA” product, do you guys export your products to other countries?
(SP): Currently, all our customers are in North America. We believe in localized globalization, so our ultimate vision as Sana Packaging scales is to localize our material sourcing and product manufacturing in the various regions/countries where we have a significant presence. Until we’re able to achieve that vision, we’re happy to ship our products to any region/country that has a recreational and/or medical cannabis program.
(missej_jessim): Why does your company work with hemp? Could you give a few examples of why it’s important to make biodegradable products?
(SP): As I mentioned, hemp is more sustainable than other industrial crops and it also has the potential to reinvigorate economically stifled agricultural communities across the United States (and the world). From an environmental perspective, hemp requires less water than other industrial crops and none of the pesticides, hemp grows to maturity in just four months, hemp remediates the soil so it’s an ideal rotational crop, one metric ton of hemp sequesters 1.5 metric tons of carbon, and so on and so forth. And I really could go on – these are just some of the reasons why hemp is an ideal feedstock for bio-based packaging materials.
However, the sustainability of hemp only gets us so far. One of the biggest challenges facing hemp as a feedstock for packaging materials is recovering the materials at the end of their product lifecycles. That said, recovery is a challenge for all packaging materials – whether they’re fossil-based, bio-based, recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable.
It’s also important to understand the difference between “biodegradable” and “compostable.” Biodegradable refers to a material’s ability to “break down, safely and relatively quickly, by biological means, into the raw materials of nature.” Compostable refers to a material’s ability to biodegrade “in a composting environment in a relatively short time, capable of producing usable compost.” And in short – in order for more biodegradable materials to be compostable, we need to improve our waste recovery systems.
As for the importance of using biodegradable materials, I think all the terrifying packaging waste and plastic waste statistics I mentioned before are reason enough!
(missej_jessim): The website mentions that the linear economy structure of society has led to “scarcity, volatility, and unaffordable pricing.” Can you explain this concept a little bit more?
(SP): It’s true – our linear “take-make-dispose” industrial model has led to scarcity, volatility, and unaffordable pricing levels. This means our natural resources are becoming scarcer and that challenge is compounded by the rising demand for said resources. Furthermore, the overuse of our natural resources causes higher price levels and more volatile markets. This is why we need to transition to a circular economic model.
(missej_jessim): What is a circular economy, and how does Sana Packaging work towards that?
(SP): The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines a circular economy as “restorative and regenerative by design.” A circular economy is meant to build economic, natural, and social capital by adhering to three guiding principles: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems.
The lifecycle of all products is ultimately the same in a circular economy: sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, use, and recovery. As I mentioned, recovery is a challenge and while it’s just one piece of the puzzle, it’s the most important piece we have to deal with when it comes to packaging.
And what do hemp and hemp-based materials have to do with a circular economy? The short answer is everything. After all, hemp is both restorative and regenerative. In a circular economy, hemp is an ideal industrial crop and materials feedstock – packaging or otherwise.
As for what Sana Packaging is doing to work towards a more circular economy, we’re designing and developing regenerative packaging products and we’re using the cannabis and industrial hemp industries as platforms for positive economic, social, and environmental change. Our goal is to change the way people think about sustainability, disposable products, and waste recovery. It’s time to change the narrative.
(missej_jessim): What impact do you think the hemp industry will make on the economy if it were to be the primary source of material for say, food, packaging, construction, paper, textile, etc.?
(SP): That’s one of our favorite things to think about! I think building materials and bioplastics are two of the largest potentials for industrial hemp. I’ve already talked about the opportunity for bioplastics. Looking at hemp as a feedstock for building materials, hemp can be used to make fiberboard, insulation, and even “hempcrete.” Hempcrete is a building material made from hydraulic lime, water, and hemp. It’s similar to concrete, except it’s better. Among other things, hempcrete is fire-resistant, insulating, and mold-resistant, it regulates indoor air temperature and humidity, it cleans the indoor air, it’s breathable, and it continues to sequester carbon throughout its useful life.
Hemp also has the potential to revolutionize the textile industry. It grows twice as fast as cotton and requires half of the water and none of the pesticides. For reference, cotton accounts for 25% of our global pesticide use. Hemp also produces 3x fiber per acre than cotton. There’s just no comparison. Hemp clothing is going to be huge.
Hemp paper is also a no-brainer. One acre of hemp produces as much pulp as four acres of trees. It also takes years for trees to grow to maturity, whereas hemp grows to maturity in just a few months. Furthermore, we could end deforestation in the United States if we dedicated 1% of our farmland (about 20 million acres) to growing hemp for paper production.
And of course, there’s also hemp food. Hemp is high in dietary fiber, it contains 33% protein, 35% essential fatty acid (Omega-3, Omega-6, Omega-9, and GLA), all nine amino acids, and 6x more Omega-3 than raw tuna.
This is just stuff I can think of off the top of my head. There are so many uses of hemp that I forgot to mention. And the best part is that hemp does all this while regenerating our planet. At the end of the day though, it’s difficult to project the exact size and extent of hemp’s possible economic and environmental impact.
(missej_jessim): What companies do you guys work with? Is plastic a big competitor?
(SP): We source our hemp herd from a natural fibers processor in Kentucky. They source the raw hemp from farmers across the United States, including Colorado, North Dakota, and Kentucky. Then, we make our plastic in North Dakota. Our formulation is 70% PLA and 30% hemp, so it’s 100% plant-based. Our final products are then manufactured in Minnesota and Arizona. In short, we’re proud to be a “Made in the USA” company because we believe in supporting domestic agriculture and domestic manufacturing.
Fossil-based packaging materials and other unsustainable packaging materials are our ultimate competitors. We don’t see other sustainable packaging materials or the companies that make them our competitors because we’re all on the same team and we’re all fighting the same fight. We need to work together and support each other if we truly want to make a difference.
(missej_jessim): Do you believe that hemp can provide a solution for the plastic pollution that haunts our Planet?
(SP): We believe hemp and hemp-based packaging materials are part of the solution to our global plastic problem. But the truth is that plastic waste and waste recovery are incredibly complicated issues. In short, we have a lot of challenges to overcome on our road to a more circular economy. But these challenges shouldn’t deter the development of hemp-based packaging materials – they should serve as motivation because there’s an opportunity for the hemp industry to influence the evolution of our waste recovery systems. Ultimately, we need to move away from fossil-based packaging materials and continue developing more bio-based packaging materials.
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An incurable passion for writing; a poet and storyteller at heart. I am a writer on the road.
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