Skip to content

The hemp paper

An ancient, new resource.

The history of paper is deeply linked to culture and science. Man had an urgent need: to communicate certain information in written form to his fellow humans. The information had to be fixed on a light and resistant support, which was easily transportable.

Hemp was among the first materials used for the production of paper not only as a support material for writing, but also for artistic activities such as painting. Many texts and works of renowned transcendence that have changed the course of history have been written or made on hemp. From Gutenberg’s Mazarina Bible to the writings of Mark Twain and Victor Hugo, up to the works of Van Gogh.

Hemp is therefore the main material used to produce paper until the invention of the printing press and the mechanization of paper machines, which required more raw material than the stocks that hemp and flax could offer. Over time, this led to the use of trees and a more aggressive chemistry for the production of the pulp (cellulose) and paper itself. Hemp fiber almost disappeared and the only use, called “wind-breaks”, remained to protect vulnerable crops against damage.

It is currently one of the least used materials but it can become an interesting renewal crop in the panorama of agricultural rotations as it once was. Once the seeds and tops (the inflorescences) have been removed, 90% of the hemp biomass remains unused, while it could become a further income opportunity if properly processed thanks to its many advantages:

  • the large amount of cellulose produced (1 hectare of hemp in a few months produces a quantity of cellulose equivalent to 4 hectares of a forest in decades);
  • the low percentage of lignin, which allows a drastic reduction of the chemical products used for processing the fibers;
  • the already white fiber which, for this reason, does not need to be chemically bleached;
  • the possibility of recycling many times over time.

In terms of appearance and consistency compared to traditional paper, it is less white, more rustic and thicker and stiffer, its only negative aspect lies in the conversion costs of the industries, which have invested in the wood fiber manufacturing processes.

A curiosity:

In 2017 Sandro Tiberi, master papermaker for Fabriano, announced that the historic company would start cultivating hemp again for the production of their products. It was planned to build a small plant sufficient for the needs of hand-made papermaking. Having to intercept the demand for the right request, it was important to first set up a pilot project so as to be able to carry out market research: once the product was obtained and the costs calculated, a more efficient and industrialized plant could also be imagined. Before making a large investment, you need to understand the receptivity of the market. From 2017 to today, the Marche Region, through the funds of the Rural Development Plan, has financed with around 400 thousand euros the project finally proposed by a partnership of public and private entities aimed at the full exploitation of hemp for its non-food use. In particular, the initiative involves the construction of an experimental plant that can process hemp fiber for the benefit of the textile, plastic, green building and paper sectors.

The project, called RECAGRI – an acronym that stands for Rete Canapa Agricola – ultimately proposes the cultivation of hemp as a modern economic opportunity for multifunctional production. Working on this project – with the Trionfi Honorati di Jesi agricultural company as lead partner – are the Polytechnic University of the Marches and the University of Camerino, companies in the production sectors concerned, the Italian Confederation of Farmers, Enea and the Municipalities of Fabriano and Jesi.

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

Not just hemp paper: more and more alternatives to wood pulp paper are being created every day, from a whole range of materials such as cotton clothes, fruit, seaweed, herbivore dung.
We explore it in depth in the article Materials With Which to Make Paper (alternatives to trees).

(On the cards made of vegetable fiber read the story of Aliza Thomas)