Hemp promoters aren’t the first, and won’t be the last, to try and knock off wood pulp as the dominant fibre source for paper packaging. And while alternative fibres like hemp, wheat straw, bamboo, and kenaf all have possibilities as blends in a wood-fibre base, it is very unlikely they will replace wood pulp as the packaging industry’s preferred feedstock.

Why do the promoters of alternative fibres find this so hard to accept, and keep pumping out false and misleading claims about wood pulp? Here’s the latest from Kimberly Kovacs, CEO of element6 Dynamics, in a recent article in Packaging Dive (“Is hemp the next revolution for sustainable pulp? Startup element6 Dynamics thinks so.”)[1].

Let’s weed out some hard truths here.

Misleading Claim # 1: “Hemp is more sustainable than pulp derived from trees.”

Fact: The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and author of The Green Guides advises against any use of the word sustainability. Canada’s Competition Bureau says: “At this time, there are no definitive methods for measuring sustainability or confirming its accomplishment. Therefore, no claim of achieving sustainability shall be made.”[2]

In fact, sustainability is a very complex goal because it encompasses a broad range of environmental, social, and economic factors that can only be measured over a long period of time. The environmental part of it alone often involves resource use and consumption in which a peer reviewed life-cycle analysis (LCA) that meets ISO 14040 standards would be the bare minimum just to get started.

Ms. Kovacs alludes to a life cycle analysis that compares hemp to wood pulp, and her company’s website claims one of its core values is to “(adhere) to scientifically validated sustainability targets.”[3] But no LCA that meets the ISO 14040 standard of independent peer review is offered, or is publicly available. Seems to be a clear case of put up or shut up.

Misleading Claim # 2: “Hemp is more recyclable than tree fibres.”

Fact: According to the FTC and the Competition Bureau, “recyclable” does not simply mean technically recyclable; it means that a percentage of the population must be able to actually send something on for recycling (60% of the population in the US and 50% in Canada)[4]. Paper packaging in both the US and Canada have access rates in the 90% range.

I am not aware of North Americans having any access to the recycling of hemp products. Or of any hemp promoters or producers rushing forward with money to help fund the necessary collection and processing infrastructure to actually recover hemp products. It seems they would prefer to piggyback on a wood fibre collection system that contributes to a circular economy while taking cheap potshots at “(displacing) destructive materials and processes in common use today” like, guess what, wood fibre[5]. And, by the way, if hemp production requires forest land to be cleared it could be responsible for far more deforestation than the paper industry, which regenerates harvested forest. True[6].

As for being technically recyclable, hemp bast fibre is longer than wood fibre, but it has to be reduced in size to be used in papermaking. I am not aware of any studies on how many times hemp can be recycled. Wood pulp can be recycled up to seven times (not four as Kovacs claims) and there’s even an Austrian study that claims 25 times.

While it is true that the overall paper life cycle requires fresh (virgin) paper fibres to be reintroduced at some point in the system to keep the whole paper cycle going (same for hemp); it is not true that paper products ending up in landfill automatically require the harvesting of fresh trees to supply new feedstock. That’s because paper recovery in North America is close to 70% and more and more paper products are being made with recycled content. So, for those products incorporating recycled content, you don’t need replacement virgin material, you don’t need to cut down more trees, you just need more recovered paper to recycle.

Most Canadian packaging mills, for example, make 100% recycled content board using old boxes and paper collected from the back of factories and supermarkets, from office buildings, and from residential Blue Box programs. Sometimes they have to import recovered fibre from the northern US so that the mills can keep operating. But these particular mills do not use freshly cut trees. In fact, they physically cannot used freshly cut trees because they don’t have the necessary tools to process them, such as debarking, chipping, and pulping equipment. So, the notion of someone grabbing a chainsaw and heading for the nearest forest to make a new box because someone has dumped an old box in landfill, is totally false.

Misleading Claim # 3: Hemp pulp is “quite the solution” for liquid containers (such as for juice or ice cream).

Fact: These boxes are coated (often with plastic) so that they do not leak. Even if hemp was added to the middle ply in place of wood fibre, without the coating, the boxes would still leak.

Misleading Claim # 4: “The pulping technology that we use is sulfur-free. What that means is that our greenhouse gas output is about 50% less than traditional pulp methodologies that use a really harsh chemical, mechanical process.”

Again, a publicly available independent peer reviewed LCA would be useful here to verify this 50% claim. The company doesn’t say, but it’s probably using the caustic soda process, or perhaps the Sustainable Fiber technology process which uses caustic soda and hydrogen peroxide. In any case, any sulfur going up a stack in the wood pulp kraft process is thoroughly scrubbed out before anything is emitted to the air, and what you may see coming out of the stack is essentially water vapour.

And then there’s the whole question of economic sustainability and “co-products.” USDA statistics for 2021 and 2022 on hemp grown in the US show a huge decrease in 2022[7]. Even then, the amount grown is insignificant in the scheme of things. Providing farmers with a new crop opportunity is great, but if there are any problems at the pulp mills taking the hemp, the farmers will be cut off and forced to turn to other crops.

Depending on a mill “co-product” (real name: black liquor) for revenue, can be a slippery slope. Using black liquor as a dust suppressant on roads got Domtar into a lot of environmental trouble back in the day (remember DomBind?) and using caustic soda black liquor as a fertiliser is not advisable either: it contains sodium ions that can build up in the soil over time with a very negative effect[8].

If you can’t sell the co-product (black liquor), disposing of it becomes a significant cost, and the whole economics of a mill can go downhill fast.

The recent track record for alternative fibres in the US is not good. Vancouver-based environmental group Canopy promoted Columbia Pulp’s wheat straw effort for years. It went bankrupt and was sold. Genera (using miscanthus and switchgrass) is still trying to make a go of it; as is Tellus Products (sugarcane bagasse). All of these mills used or use the same pulping process, but none of them has been able to meet the design promises made by its promoters.

Kovacs’ offer to pay off one hemp farmer’s debt every year the company makes a profit is very philanthropic, and good PR. But the reality is that most investors are not going to do anything without something in return first.

[1] “Is hemp the next revolution for sustainable pulp? Startup element6 Dynamics thinks so.” Packaging Dive, April 8, 2024 https://www.packagingdive.com/news/element6-dynamics-industrial-hemp-mill-ceo-kimberley-kovacs/712289

[2]US Federal Trade Commission, “FTC Issues Revised Green Guides” (press release), October 1, 2012, https://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/attachments/press-releases/ftc-issues-revised-green-guides/greenguides.pdf  Competition Bureau of Canada, “4.6 Claims of Sustainability.” Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisers, June 2008,  

[3] Element6 Dynamics website, https://element6dynamics.com (accessed 16 April, 2024).

[4] FTC, ibid., “260.12(a) Recyclable Claims” Green Guides (revised); Competition Bureau “10.13 General,” Environmental Claims, ibid.

[5] Element6 Dynamics website (accessed 16 April, 2024), https://www.element6dynamics.com/impact/

[6] John Mullinder, “Smearing paper packaging seems to be fashionable these days. What are the facts?”, October 6, 2023, https://johnmullinder.ca/smearing-paper-packaging-seems-to-be-fashionable-these-ds-what-are-the-facts/

[7] US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Hemp Report released April 19,2023. “In 2022, production of hemp grown in the open for fiber was estimated at 21.0 million pounds, down 37 percent from 2021. Area harvested for hemp grown in the open for fiber in the United States was estimated at 6,850 acres, down 46 percent from last season.” https://usda.library.cornell.edu/concern/publications/gf06h2430

[8] R.S. Ayers, D.W. Westcot, “Water Quality and Agriculture,” FAO Irrigation and Drainage Paper 0254-5284, 1994, https://fao.org/documents/card/en?details=d5ded352-1815-5718-9797-58e42860a896/