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Hemp Paper

An ancient, new resource.

The history of paper is deeply intertwined with that of culture and science. Humans had an urgent need: to communicate specific information to their peers in written form. This information needed to be recorded on a lightweight and durable medium that was easily transportable.

Hemp was among the first materials used for paper production, not only as a writing support but also for artistic activities such as painting. Many texts and works of renowned significance that have changed the course of history were written or created on hemp, from the Gutenberg Bible to the writings of Mark Twain and Victor Hugo, to the works of Van Gogh.

Hemp was therefore the principal material until the invention of the printing press and the mechanization of paper machines required more raw material than hemp and flax could provide. Over time, this led to the use of trees and to a more aggressive chemistry for pulp (cellulose) and paper production. Hemp fiber almost disappeared, leaving only one use, called wind-breaks, to protect vulnerable crops from potential damage.

Currently, hemp is one of the least utilized materials, but it can become an interesting renewable crop in the landscape of agricultural rotations as it once was. Apart from seeds and tops (the inflorescences), 90% of hemp biomass remains unused, while it could become an additional income opportunity if properly processed, thanks to its numerous advantages:

  • The large amount of cellulose produced (1 hectare of hemp in a few months produces an amount of cellulose equivalent to that produced by 4 hectares of forest in decades).

  • The low percentage of lignin, which simultaneously leads to a drastic reduction in the chemicals required for processing.

  • The fiber is already white and, therefore, does not need to be chemically bleached.

  • The possibility of repeated recycling many times over time.

As for appearance and consistency compared to traditional paper, it is less white, more rustic, thicker, and stiffer. Its only negative aspect lies in the conversion costs for industries that have invested in processing processes of woody fiber.

Interesting fact:

In 2017, Sandro Tiberi, a master papermaker for Fabriano, announced that the historic company would resume cultivating hemp for the production of their products. It was envisaged the construction of a small plant sufficient for the needs of handmade paper manufacturing. Intercepting demand correctly was important to set up a pilot project first so that market research could be conducted: once the product was obtained and costs calculated, it was possible to imagine an even more efficient and industrialized plant. Before making a large investment, it is necessary to understand the market's receptivity. From 2017 to the present day, the Marche Region, through the funds of the Rural Development Plan, has financed the project proposed by a partnership of public and private entities aimed at the full valorization of hemp for its non-food use, as well as for food use, with approximately €400,000. In particular, the initiative involves the creation of an experimental plant that can process hemp fiber for the benefit of the textile sector, plastics, bio-construction, and paper.

The project, called RECAGRI - an acronym for Agricultural Hemp Network - ultimately proposes hemp cultivation as a modern economic opportunity for multifunctional production. Working on this project - with the Trionfi Honorati agricultural company of Jesi as the lead partner - are the Polytechnic University of the Marche and the University of Camerino, companies from the sectors interested, the Italian Farmers Confederation, ENEA, and the municipalities of Fabriano and Jesi.

The aim is to increase the circular economy through the use of a raw material that would otherwise produce waste material for 90% if different uses were not experimented with and financed in various sectors. This way, not only would the environmental impact of these sectors on the ecosystem be reduced, but new jobs would also be created, which could continue to grow over time, especially since the plant required for hemp paper production could easily be used for the production of paper from other types of plant pulp, thus optimizing production spaces.

Not just hemp paper: every day, more and more alternatives to wood pulp paper are being created, using a whole range of materials such as cotton clothes, fruit, algae, and herbivore dung.

We delve deeper into this topic in the article " Materiali con cui fare la carta (alternativi agli alberi). (On papers made from plant fibers, read the story of Aliza Thomas)

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