Thursday, January 24, 2013

Cradle to Cradle Technology and Industrial Hemp

Cradle to Cradle Technology and Industrial Hemp
Two disparate topics, but somehow they are entwined in my brain. Just warning you, this is a stream of consciousness post.

Intact hemp seeds.
Original photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Cradle to Cradle Technology is the opposite of Cradle to Grave, which is the current state of consumer products in the world. Items are bought, used, then trashed, and rarely salvaged or reused. Aluminum is one exception according to leading sustainable architect William McDonough, who says 75% of aluminum in circulation has been recycled. 

McDonough wants to create technology in which products can be used and then recycled, based on natural processes, and did a recent podcast on New Dimensions radio. (Warning, he has a very soothing voice so it can be sleep inducing if you're tired... but he's also wonderfully optimistic.)

In nature, nothing is wasted. A leaf rots and then turns into dirt. One type of matter becomes useful for something else. Why not learn from nature and create products that can be reused when they reach the end of their life cycles?  Hence the term, cradle to cradle. Examples include: 

  • Certain components or materials like lead can be recaptured as “technical nutrients” so that they are not released into the environment. 
  • Plastic polymers can be developed so that they disintegrate in sunlight or in salt water, and become food for bacteria. 
  • McDonough is already talking about phosphate production that can be extracted from local sewage plants, as a natural byproduct, since phosphate crystals naturally form and clog up sewer pipes. 

Phosphate extraction is already happening in Canada and being put in place for cities like Portland and San Francisco.  Why phosphate? It’s a necessary ingredient in fertilizer, and a needed daily nutrient for human beings. If we can’t produce phosphate, then we’d need to obtain it from long distances and perhaps politically unstable countries. McDonough is working with chemists and industrial designers to create processes that mimic nature’s cycle of renewal. He’s currently working on a house that can be built without tools, even by small children.

For Hawaii, I’d love to see beach umbrellas that disintegrate on their own. It’s amazing how many beach umbrellas and beach chairs are trashed because one little piece has broken off. Or they are trashed when they are still perfectly usable. 

Beach mats are kind of compostable since they are made of grass, and I’ve thrown several in our compost pile, but the nylon or polyester threads do not break down in the compost.  How about beach umbrella cloth that also disintegrates in sunlight or sea water over time, and can become food for sea creatures? How about beach mats sewn with natural thread fibers or of polymer fibers that do break down?  Or Styrofoam coolers that break down in salt water? Body boards that also naturally disintegrate over time?

Busted up beach umbrella.
What if it could be recycled, or if the fibers and post decomposed naturally?

What about sunscreen that doesn’t clog the coral reefs? Many local hotels and resorts have to thoroughly clean their pools at least once a week, because of the thick oil slick from sunscreen. This same sunscreen blankets the beaches of Ka'anapali and also kills coral. Will Hawaii have coral reefs 30 years from now? Not if we keep using the same sunscreen in the vast quantities that we use now.

And what does cradle to cradle technology have to do with industrial hemp production?  Two nights ago, Colorado farmer Michael Bowman gave a talk at the Maui Farmers Union about industrial hemp production, meaning the farming of hemp. Hemp - not cannabis, not marijuana, not pot, not Maui Wowie, nothing to do with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Hemp as a plant fiber used in rope, fabric and other industrial uses. Bowman said that the US is the only nation which uses industrial hemp but is not allowed to grow industrial hemp. The US imports it from Canada and other countries because of federal drug laws designed to prevent marijuana use and growth.  Currently, industrial hemp farming is exceedingly difficult.

Per Bowman, to get an industrial hemp growing permit, the DEA - Drug Enforcement Agency requires:
  • A 10 foot high chain link fence topped with razor wire surrounding the hemp field
  • 24 hour security of the hemp field including 24 hour video cameras
  • A shed in the field that has internet access and can store the seeds, which need to be locked up at all times.
Bowman briefly went over the history of hemp production in the US, including the key industrial figures (Rockefeller, Hearst, etc…) who taxed hemp and helped make it illegal because it would compete with the newly emerging paper and oil industries.  

Colorado just passed a law that legalizes farming of industrial hemp and Bowman wants to be one of the pioneer farmers. He thinks legalizing farming of industrial hemp would bring many jobs back to the United States.  Hemp inherently seems like a cradle to cradle fit. As a material, it can be used to make biodiesel and can even be used as a concrete substitute. Per Bowman, hempcrete is three times stronger than cement or concrete, yet lighter, and homes are being built with it now.

Michael Bowman has also gone to Capitol Hill to lobby for the legalization of hemp cultivation and talked with President Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack. He is now pushing a hemp farming petition on the White House website. The White House says that anytime they get 100,000 signatures on a petition, they will offer a policy response. What's gratifying to hear is that Bowman said that his group has been working to legalize hemp farming in Colorado for five years, meeting lawmakers from both parties, and anyone who was interested. So sometimes all those petitions and sustainability efforts make a difference.

What if hemp could be used in beach umbrella fabric or in beach chairs?  What if hemp could be processed to make foam coolers that disintegrate?  What if Maui’s sugar cane fields could be turned into hemp fields? What about Hawaii homes made from hempcrete, that are resistant to mold and mildew? Hmmm, is hempcrete termite-resistant? What are the possibilities for cradle to cradle technology using locally grown hemp? 


  1. Aloha,
    Nice article. I still didn't get a good list of tags for my video from the Maui Farmers Union set up yet. Just started playing with the transcript, closed captioning and annotations portion with another video. If it works right, pulling transcripts and even converting the video to podcasts for those that just want to listen would add some nice features.
    I spent about an hour writing on this Sunday and everything I copied and pasted for references I have, but despite constantly saving as I moved between programs, I lost about a 1/2 hour of original thoughts on it. Very frustrating. Second one this week.
    While the whole meeting is posted on the elections the following week, I still need to do the meeting and hope to break the talks into segments rather than the entire meeting. We'll see how it goes. I would love to standardize some tags for all MFUU posts and then add ones related to the post. Might help in SEO.

  2. Showing "Bringing it home", a great movie on industrial hemp on Monday. See


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