THE MANY ADVANTAGES OF
The use of hemp fiber for paper manufacturing is an idea that is older than Betsy Ross' flag. The hemp plant, which was historically cultivated for its fiber by farmers including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, is one of the oldest non-wood fibers ever used for paper making. The first sheets of paper were formed in China nearly 2,000 years ago from pulverized fishing nets and rags containing hemp fiber.
In colonial America, the first paper mills were fueled by fiber derived from cotton, hemp, and flax rags. Rag collectors of that day were perhaps the first recyclers who gathered post consumer rags by horse drawn cart, an early precedent for convenient curbside recycling! It wasn't until 1870 that wood fiber was first utilized for paper making, a time when rags were not plentiful enough to satisfy this country's rapidly growing printing and publishing needs.
In California, the thrifty tradition of rag-based papermaking has been reinvented by Green Field Paper Company. Green Field works in partnership with several environmentally friendly clothing companies to capture their textile waste and pulp it up for paper. One of these hemp clothing pioneers is Star Dog, the Berkeley, California-based company that produces a full line of mens and womens hemp clothing. Over the last three years, Green Field has recycled more than 10 tons of hemp fabric waste from the manufacture of Star Dog products.
Besides saving trees, the real advantages of hemp fiber are its superior strength and archival characteristics. Paper is made from cellulose, the structural fiber in plants and trees that allow them to defy gravity and grow skyward. The hemp plant, like cotton, produces cellulose fibers that are much more pure than fibers derived from wood.
It is these impurities in wood fiber, and the caustic processes used to remove them, that turn your newspaper yellow when it is left in the sun for a couple of hours. This is also why so many of the books and manuscripts published in the last one hundred years are literally disintegrating on library book shelves.
Many of the early documents printed on hemp paper hundreds, or even one thousand years ago, are still in existence. One of the more notable documents drafted in this Country in 1776 on hemp paper was The Declaration of Independence. Hemp was legal to grow then--but those were revolutionary times! Fabric made with hemp fiber was also used by Betsy Ross to sew the American flag. The industrial uses of hemp are indeed deeply rooted in American soil.
Today, the consumption of paper is increasing at a pace more rapid than trees can be sustainably grown for cellulose fiber. Efforts are now underway to end the prohibition on industrial hemp cultivation in this country. As recently as 1945 farmers were being urged to grow hemp fiber for the war effort. In the future, non-wood fibers such as hemp must again assume a major role in paper manufacturing as we conserve our remaining resources and embrace sustainable methods of forest stewardship.
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