The more the cannabis and hemp industries grow, the more waste they produce and the more that waste becomes a problem. Over 1 million metric tons of cannabis and hemp stalk and stem waste was generated last year in North America, a lot of which wasn’t recycled and didn’t just disappear into thin air, but was buried and/or burned.
Recognizing this growing problem, 9Fiber, an agri-tech company, has patented a technology that takes this waste, converts it into sustainable materials – fiber and cellulose – and sends it back into circulation in 9 different markets, such as textiles, paper, plastics, currently coronavirus masks, and more.
While standard hemp retting, which is the process of soaking hemp in chemicals to separate the fiber from the stem, tends to take place in China and is highly toxic, running unchecked by the country’s lax regulations, 9Fiber’s system eliminates retting altogether and only gives off water and oxygen. In fact, the elegant technology makes for a double win, as its eco-friendliness is achieved through streamlining hemp decortication, softening, whitening, degumming, and decontamination, compressing those five steps down to 90 minutes from the 16 days they currently take in China.
9Fiber aims to establish hubs that would stir a circular economy with farmers, which would operate in two models.
The first one sounds like a mutually beneficial donation.
“Some folks say ‘For the love of God, just come pick this stuff up,’” says Adin Alai, 9Fiber’s CEO. “They’re just going to give it to us and we’re going to take it off their hands. That eliminates a cost for them, so in a sense, they’re getting paid, because it’s a cost they don’t have to deal with.”
The second model can actually make farmers some money on top of the eliminated cost.
“If they [farmers] pre-prepare it [the waste], so if they separate stalk from stem, then there’s an acquisition price for that, and then we would work than into a relationship,” Alai explains.
Had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic, 9Fiber would have already scaled up its operations to impressive proportions. It currently eyes two major milestones.
“The first scale would be about 4 million pounds of stalk and stem waste on an annual base, and the second scale, which would be a full commercial deployment, is 35 million pounds on an annual basis,” Alai says. “As we look at the map now, there are about 12 to 15 places in the country that can support a commercial scale processing facility at that 35-million threshold. We see nothing but growth in that sector.”
As this growth comes closer to fruition, we could start seeing hemp waste incorporated into more and more products.
“In some cases, we will co-develop the finished product, but in most cases, we’re supplying that sustainable material input that’s replacing something similar in the finished product that beats it on price, performance, and obviously the sustainability of its global supply.”
Some of those products would be the last thing that people would normally associate with hemp, like car brake-pads. 9Fiber is already in partnership with one of the largest brake pad manufacturers in the world and is currently collecting empirical data while waiting for the technology to scale up.
We’re certainly looking forward to see other such surprising applications of hemp waste that kill two birds with one stone.
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