The US Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper – July 4, 1776.
According to traditional Chinese tales, paper was invented in 105 CE by Ts’ai Lun, a eunuch scribe of the imperial court in the then capital of China, LouYang, on the Yellow River.
Because the story is known to be a fable, it is not known why Ts’ai Lun is credited for the invention of paper, since artifacts predate him by many centuries. As it stands now, no one really knows how the art of papermaking was discovered, but it quickly became popular the world over.
According to this Chinese fable, Ts’ai Lun was so ridiculed in court about his invention that he retaliated with some well choreographed publicity. With the help of some friends, he told people that paper would bring the dead back to life, so he pretended to die.
His friends buried him in a coffin but left a hollow reed connected to the outside so he could breathe. After a few days, they dug him up and to everyone’s amazement, Ts’ai Lun was still alive.
The resurrection was considered a miracle and attributed to the power of his paper. To this day, paper is burned at funerals so that loved ones will come back to life.
For many centuries, the Chinese kept the secret of papermaking from the rest of the world. It was not until the 5th century CE, that the art of papermaking spread to Japan.
It had reached Samarkand by 751 CE, Baghdad by 793, Cairo in the 10th century, Spain in the 12th, Italy by the 13th, and then to Nuremburg, Germany, in 1390, where movable type was invented.
The first hemp paper was made using 80% hemp bark and 20% bark of the mulberry bush. Because the hemp and mulberry plants were also used in worshiping the gods, it is no wonder that papermaking became an ignoble calling.
The hemp and mulberry barks were pulped by crushing the fibers, which were then placed in a vat of water with quick-lime (calcium carbonate). The fiber was screened through a silk mesh. The screens were left out to dry and later, the dried paper was peeled from the screens.
Today, half of all trees cut down are made into paper with only about 5% of the world’s paper made from annual plants like hemp, flax, sugarcane, bagasse, esparto, wheat straw, reeds, sisal, abaca, ananas, and other exotic species.
These fibers are the most expensive for making paper, but they do produce the finest-quality writing material. Since deforestation is a serious environmental crisis, hemp can offer a significant contribution to the world’s environment as well as its economy.
Recycling Paper Is Not the Answer
EPA guidelines for labeling a product ‘recycled’ call for using only 10% reclaimed waste as mill broke, scraps of paper trimmed off the mill and reused anyway as standard operating procedure. Thus, the so-called recycled paper may be made of 90% virgin wood pulp!
Post consumer waste that includes newspapers, magazines, and cardboard, require a de-inking process before they can be repulped.
This process actually creates more pollution than the manufacture of virgin paper. Wood pulp produces 1/3 paper and 2/3 waste. Therefore, 100 tons of paper made from virgin wood fiber produces about 5 tons of sludge – some of which is used in fertilizer.
However, 100 tons of paper made from postconsumer waste generates about 40 tons of toxic sludge, which must be disposed.
Is Growing Hemp for Paper Feasible?
Hemp advocates say it is possible to leave the forests alone and go back to making paper from hemp, but is that really feasible? Technically, yes. Once plant cellulose is turned into pulp, machines cannot tell the difference between it and wood pulp.
Wisconsin is the largest paper-producing state in the US. They draw on their own forests as well as those in neighboring states and Ontario, Canada, to feed its mills. Wisconsin also has thousands of acres of agricultural land that is no longer farmed because of depressed commodity prices.
As it stands now, this underused farmland in Wisconsin could easily supply enough pulp for fine-paper production at the same price per ton as wood pulp. According to local agricultural experts, the state has 1,000,000 acres of land available that could be growing industrial hemp and the growing demand for hemp could easily exceed production capacity.
This is just one state. Imagine what could be done in other states and provinces of North America or even around the world.
Recently, Dutch researchers looked at the feasibility of paper production from hemp in a 3-year study costing about US$10 million. The Dutch are seeking new crops that can be grown in rotation with their standard crops in order to reduce the need for pesticides.
They believe they have found the answer in growing industrial hemp. Their recommendation was that 1,000 farmers from the Rhine Valley region of the Netherlands set up a cooperative, which would own shares in a new pulp factory.
So far, the start-up costs have prevented anyone from taking the plunge for something that big. However, a committee comprised of farmers, government officials, and papermakers has decided to start a small pilot project.