What’s the Deal with Hemp and Paper?

Until recently, hemp was not a widely grown crop in the United States. Its close botanical relationship to a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) “Schedule I” controlled substance meant it was restricted under federal law, with rigorous permitting requirements for its cultivation and sale.

But beginning in 2014, the Agricultural Act of 2014 (otherwise known as “The Farm Bill”) authorized the growing of industrial hemp for limited research purposes, as part of agricultural pilot programs in states where that activity was not otherwise prohibited.

Then, the 2018 version of the Farm Bill authorized full-fledged production, removing hemp and its seeds from the DEA Schedule of controlled substances and authorizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to regulate and oversee it. This also opened the door for American hemp farmers to participate in a number of USDA programs and protections.

Hemp is defined in federal law as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives…with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration [“THC”] of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.” This means USDA retains special responsibilities with regard to hemp production, including licensing, testing for acceptable THC levels, and disposal of plants that don’t meet those standards.  

Even before the opening of U.S. farmland to hemp production, there was a sizeable legal import market and hemp has long been used in food, textiles, industrial goods, and personal care products.

And yes, a small amount of imported hemp is currently being used to make specialty papers in the United States, though that market is quite small, and little detailed data is available.

Could that market expand? Sure. Hemp has been used in the pulping and paper-making processes for hundreds, even thousands of years, including in the U.S. Different types of pulp produce different types of paper, and many paper products use a blend of different pulps (including recycled pulp) in a recipe known as a “fiber furnish.” What goes into each fiber furnish is a function of a number of factors, including price and availability as well as the characteristics desired in the finished product.

Again, some fiber furnishes already contain small amounts of hemp, but because of its relatively high cost, they are often blended with less expensive fibers. Hemp also has to compete with other, more readily available non-wood fibers on quality and characteristic, with fibers like cotton, flax, and kenaf often preferred by manufacturers. There are some specialty papers where hemp is a better fit, including currency, cigarette papers, filter papers, and tea bags.

Could there be a bigger place for hemp in papermaking now that American farmers can grow it legally?  It’s certainly possible, especially if expanded cultivation makes prices more competitive. But it’s not clear that hemp would be a more responsible choice than wood fiber in many contexts. Consider the insights of a major paper manufacturer in Canada, where hemp cultivation is far more common. They point out that hemp and other non-wood fibers require more and consistent watering than forests, which can better stand up to differences in natural rainfall. Non-wood fibers can also use more water in processing. (Most water used in the paper-making process is purified and returned to its source, but low-water areas can be more sensitive to temporary diversions). Pulping non-wood fiber crops can also be more reliant on fossil fuels, unlike wood fiber which provides its own energy in the form of biomass. Lastly, forests are usually a better use of land than non-wood fiber crops, in terms of wildlife habitat value and biodiversity, water and soil protection, and climate-change fighting carbon storage.

Our paper and packaging companies have developed their pulp sourcing practices over many decades, carefully balancing attributes, affordability, availability, and sustainability, among other priorities. As hemp becomes more and more common in the domestic market, we are confident our industry will give it every consideration along each of those dimensions.