Gary Schuler never expected to jump into the industrial hemp industry, but he finds himself now pitching the plant’s potential and its milled-down byproduct for new uses.
The founder and CEO of Grand Rapids-based GTF Solutions credits his son for convincing him to look into the up-and-coming industrial hemp industry after the 2018 Farm Bill authorized hemp cultivation as an agricultural commodity.
Using innovative milling technology, GTF Solutions can process parts of the hemp plant that are currently considered waste for use in food products, animal feed, bioplastics, textiles, insulation and building materials.
Michigan farmers grew the state’s first legal industrial hemp crop in more than 50 years in 2019, and growers, processors and industry analysts are optimistic about the promise hemp holds for farmers and businesses in the future.
“The long-term longevity is going to be these industrial applications; that is what is exciting,” Schuler said. “It’s a viable product, and we’re in a great state to grow it.”
Growing hemp flower for CBD oil is currently garnering the most attention, but Schuler envisions everyday products such as water bottles, pizza boxes, denim jeans and flooring being made out of hemp biomass.
“A hemp plant has tremendous value,” he said. “The first pair of Levi’s blue jeans made was made out of hemp, not cotton. If we can reduce nylon and we use a natural fiber like hemp, it is stronger and you are not taking fossil fuels to make a pair of jeans.”
Hemp cultivation has surged in Europe, and the 2018 Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp production across the country, resulting in millions of pounds of hemp stalk waste material.
The material’s value stems from its ability to enhance existing plastic and construction materials and reduce the need for fossil fuel petroleum-based products, Schuler said.
Upcycling food waste
GTF’s focus is to create revenue streams from food waste, agriculture overproduction and various plant materials, including hemp. The company plans to open a food-grade processing facility in West Michigan in spring of 2020.
Milling down excess fruits and consumer food products into fruit powder, plant-based protein or brewers spent grain benefits the environment by reducing carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases produced from rotting food. It also helps create a circular economy by upcycling food material for new uses.
As well, growers with excess fruits or vegetables can have their crop milled down into a powder that has a multi-year shelf life. Processors who make apple and cherry juice turn their wastes into a powder that provides them a secondary revenue stream, for example.
GTF Solutions can quickly extract 97 percent of the moisture out of the food product and retain 100 percent of the nutrient value, Schuler said.
“Once that harvest comes in, you’ve got a short time period,” he said. “We’re powderizing it, so it stops the clock on the food. I have powders I’ve had for four years. It’s similar to baking materials in your cupboard.”
GTF Solutions also has the technology and license agreement to put in milling centers for hemp waste material in Michigan and beyond. The company is in discussions with several large hemp harvesting and processing facilities in the U.S. and Europe to mill hemp stalks.
The goal is to have initial operations milling hemp waste for the fall harvest in 2020 in several states and in Europe.
“We’re trying to locate these facilities where a lot of the hemp waste is being collected,” Schuler said. “You can’t drop off a bale of hemp stalks to Ford Motor Company. It needs to be processed first. It is no different than an oil refinery. You put a refinery where a lot of the crude oil is being collected.”
Right now, most growers are focused on selling the flower part of the hemp plant for CBD oil. Processors take the top 12 inches of the flower material. The remaining plant and organic material often is left to rot in the field or burned.
“They (farmers) don’t know what to do with it, but the rest of the plant has an incredible application that really could be significant to helping reduce the carbon footprint,” Schuler said. “This is going to benefit the farmers to have a secondary source for their waste material.”
Milling technology can turn the leftover parts of the hemp plants into a very fine, dry powder for use in bioplastics, textiles, insulation and building materials.
“All of those things require the hemp to be milled so it can be integrated into the various industrial applications,” Schuler said. “It really is a critical part of the supply chain.”
Bioplastic needs to have around 25 percent plant-based material, which involves replacing petroleum-based polypropylene and adding hemp waste material as the filler to make plastic polymers.
The Hemp Plastic Co. also is processing hemp polymer in Michigan and exploring the future viability of hemp bio-resins.
“We are creating the science as we go, and we are really learning a lot about the potential applications as we go,” said Greg Dean, chief commercial and operations officer for The Hemp Plastic Co.
Dean, who lives in Southeast Michigan, has 20 years of experience in the plastics industry.
“I am very encouraged that there is a variety of channels and industries that our products will work well in,” he said. “The good news (is) I see a real case for these activities to be very much embedded in Michigan.”
Besides getting the infrastructure in place to process hemp biomass, growers need to ramp up cultivation of industrial hemp to fulfill the volume of hemp needed for these new industrial uses.
Schuler and other hemp advocates aim to make state legislators, the public and business owners aware of the potential for the industry.
“In the future, this is going to be a big part of all of our lives,” said Blain Becktold, government and business liaison for iHemp Michigan LLC, a member-based group that advocates for the industry. “Almost everything can be made out of hemp or some part of it can be made out of hemp.”
Hemp materials available today can be easily integrated within a company’s existing processes without having to retool, said Schuler of GTF Solutions. The key is getting larger companies to accept hemp-derived material, which will create more demand and additional value for the farmers.
Hemp is a low-energy alternative that “could really move the needle from an environmental” standpoint, Schuler said. Hemp biopolymer products are renewable, sustainable and, in some cases, compostable, and can be used for injection molds, thermoplastics, sheet film and more.
“I think the biggest challenge that I am seeing right now, the corporations have a stigma about hemp and not understanding that it is different than a marijuana plant,” Schuler said. “They are not aware of the industrial applications, that hemp can bring value in terms of their ability to reduce their carbon footprint.
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