Industrial hemp is green in more ways than one. The plant—which can be manufactured into materials replacing plastics, textiles, building materials, and even paper—is more than just eco-friendly. Hemp, a non-psychoactive form of the cannabis plant, may lead the way to a more sustainable and less carcinogenic future. Nearly 40 states have legalized its cultivation for research or commercial purposes. For individuals concerned about exposure to possibly toxic chemicals, this unassuming plant may offer an ideal solution as an all-natural and chemical-free replacement for products with questionable ingredients.
Hemp’s history as an industrial material dates back at least 5,000 years. In the United States, hemp cultivation was crucial to British colonists who harvested hemp for textiles, paper, and other materials like rigging, sails, and rope. Hemp farming remained widespread throughout the United States until the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937—the first federal prohibitory measure against cannabis—spurred its decline by taxing physicians and pharmacists for prescribing or selling cannabis products. Those who did not pay were subject to arrest. The act is often considered the start of the cannabis-prohibition movement and subsequent “War on Drugs,” which disproportionately targeted non-white Americans. Today, many lawmakers and activists are fighting to revive the hemp industry, among them Illinois State Senator Toi Hutchinson. In 2017, Hutchinson proposed the bill that became the Industrial Hemp Act. She felt inspired by the prevalence of hemp in today’s marketplace—from food items to industrial materials—and the rich, Illinois farmland she saw not reaching its full potential.
“We’re at a stage in the country where people realize what George Washington realized—that the hemp plant is pretty amazing. There are so many hemp products that are legal and available in stores now,” Hutchinson says. “The first thing I asked was ‘Why can’t we produce the things I can buy in a store right now? Why does it all have to be imported?’”
Inspired by hemp’s success both historically and in states that have legalized its cultivation, Hutchinson pushed her initiative forward, though it took three sessions for the proposal to succeed. “[Hemp is] a product that is long overdue here in Illinois, where we have some of the best farmland in the country,” she says.
Hemp could be a renewable solution to heal damaged environments and fight climate change.
Hemp’s health benefits and environmental impact develop as soon as the plant breaks through the soil. Deep roots allow the plant to access water and nutrients other plants may not reach, which rejuvenates the soil for off-season crops. Hemp’s roots also remove harmful toxins (including heavy metals) from the soil, protecting underground water stores. Even hemp waste heals its environment when made into valuable “biochar,” a form of charcoal that improves soil fertility by increasing water and nutrient retention. With such useful anti-pollution properties, hemp could be a renewable solution to heal damaged environments and fight climate change.
“Hemp can be dialed into the needs of the soil. It gives us a whole crop utilization which provides soil amendment, prevents runoff, and creates a closed loop system,” says Joy Beckerman, principal industrial hemp specialist at Hemp Ace Technologies. “We like to say that there are no byproducts, only coproducts.”
Perhaps the most important environmental impact is hemp’s propensity for carbon sequestration, a process which absorbs CO2 from the soil. Environmentalists use carbon sequestration to combat the dangerous accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In a 2011 Australian study, James Vosper found one ton of harvested hemp stem represented 1.63 tons of absorbed CO2. For Hutchinson, the numerous benefits to both industry and environmentalism offer a healthier future for her home state.
“[Hemp] is wonderful for the soil, it reduces carbon footprints, and it aids in organic farming. As a natural herbicide, it reduces the number of chemicals farmers need to use. In terms of industrial potential, it’s sustainable and 100 percent biodegradable,” adds Hutchinson. “To me, it was a no-brainer from an environmental, common-sense, and economic standpoint.”
One of hemp’s most promising products is hempcrete, an insulation made of hemp and lime pioneered by companies like Hemp Ace Technologies, who built the nation’s first hempcrete home in North Carolina. Hempcrete offers a nontoxic alternative to standard types of home insulation, including pink fiberglass insulation, polyurethane foam spray, and rigid foam boards. These options often contain dangerous chemicals such as flame retardants and formaldehyde, which have been found to cause endocrine disruption, neurological damage, and cancer.
The Environmental Protection Agency has warned that popular polyurethane foam spray varieties have the potential to off-gas, or release chemical gases back into the home. Because hemp naturally purifies the air, Beckerman claims hempcrete is an ideal material in homes. It can even support a temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit without the use of heating or air conditioning units, making homes more energy efficient.
“The air immediately feels clean when you step into a hempcrete house. There’s a natural smell and feel in the air. Mold and pests cannot live in hempcrete, and the material’s vapor permeability helps regulate humidity and moisture,” says Beckerman.
High indoor air quality makes hempcrete homes safe for those with allergies or breathing conditions, Beckerman says. Because hempcrete is nontoxic and free of carcinogens, residents have a lower risk of exposing themselves to harmful substances in everyday life and from property damage, which can release hazardous materials into the air. Hutchinson says this issue became clear to her after witnessing firsthand the fallout from California wildfires. Watching ash fall like snow, she noticed a lack of conversation about the dangers of building materials.
“It’s not just property damage that individuals and families face; all the various plastics, synthetics, and processed materials in buildings leach into the soil. A product like hempcrete opens up an incredible opportunity for new industries, new clean jobs, and new sustainable building projects that we haven’t even begun to think about,” she says.
With the Industrial Hemp Act establishing a legal framework for Illinois hemp farmers, Hutchinson says she hopes to see an energized change. Hemp has the potential to galvanize communities, creating new jobs and bolstering the economy. To make a real difference, Hutchinson says she will stand firm for criminal justice reform and equitable asset distribution to communities of color, who have historically been disparately impacted by cannabis legislation. State Senator Heather Steans and State Representative Kelly Cassidy share this commitment to Illinois citizens while creating a new industry for the state. Steans and Cassidy are currently sponsoring a bill to legalize marijuana—another potential cash source for the state—which they plan on revising and reintroducing in the General Assembly’s next regular session.
“Environmental sustainability is not incompatible with economic development and business development. This is an exciting new time,” Hutchinson says.
Until then, hempcrete offers a promising future for homeowners looking to reduce potential carcinogens in their spaces. While the product is only available for on-site building projects, Hemp Ace Technologies is working towards prefabricated panels. In the meantime, hemp farming continues to prosper, bolstering an industry which could deliver radical improvements to climate and personal health.
“I hope this is part of a sustainable, green-energy way of looking at the industry,” Hutchinson says. “There’s a whole world of possibility opening up, and I hope the sky’s the limit.”