The National Hemp Growers Cooperative (NHGC) is a Mississippi-based organization with members across the U.S. that aims to provide opportunities for its growers and help them excel in their businesses. Recently, the cooperative has turned its attention to bioplastics.

NHGC recently partnered with Troy University’s Center for Materials and Manufacturing Sciences in Alabama–where several of its members reside–to further the research and development of biodegradable plastics using hemp fiber and to create more market opportunities for its growers, particularly within the automotive industry.

The Center for Materials and Manufacturing Sciences opened in 2018 with help from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which awarded the center a three-year $3.2 million grant to further develop research related to polymers and polymer recycling. The NIST has since awarded the center two additional grants totaling $5 million to aid research.

Nick Walters, NHGC managing partner, says the center’s existing research and development efforts helped pave the way for the partnership. He adds that NHGC National Membership Coordinator, Max Howell, is also an alumnus of Troy University, further cementing the cooperative’s partnership with the university.

The university works closely with one of the largest plastic recycling companies in the U.S., KW Plastics, located in Troy, Ala., Walters says.

As part of the partnership, NHGC members will grow the hemp for the research, while KW plastics will provide the different types of recyclable plastics the Center for Materials and Manufacturing Sciences needs throughout the research and development.

Creating Opportunity

The partnership came about, in part, through Howell’s connection with Troy University, Walters says.

“Howell had an opportunity to visit with [Troy University’s] chancellor and with some of the leadership on the board of trustees and others at Troy, [and he told] them more about what we were doing in the co-op, [and] he mentioned, ‘Well, you know, bioplastics is just one of the end uses that you could do from hemp,'” Walters says.

He added, “We started having some dialogue, and the chancellor got really excited about that because he could see the opportunity, and we see it too in the state of Alabama. [One of] the end uses we are going to explore aggressively is with the automotive assembly plants.”

Just within the Southeast, there are 16 automotive, truck and bus assembly plants, with four of those located in Alabama, Walters says, adding that the idea is for its growers to be able to sell product to the automotive industry in Alabama and eventually across the U.S.

The partnership also helps the Center for Materials and Manufacturing Sciences achieve its ultimate goal “to offer solutions to real-world problems,” as well as opens the door for similar partnerships in the future, Cannabis Business Times previously reported.

“The use of bio-based plastics is full of potential, in particular for the U.S. automotive industry. Industrial hemp [has] already proven to be an excellent source for bio-based plastics, but we need to create even more uses by blending with recyclable plastics,” Walters said in a press release announcing the partnership.

While creating a market for its members within the automotive industry is undoubtedly at the forefront, the cooperative is continually looking for opportunities beyond that.

“We start with the customer in mind,” Walters says. “Ultimately, [we ask ourselves] ‘Who is going to buy this product? Who needs it? What do they need it for? What format will it be?’… So, when we start with understanding what the customer’s needs are, [it gives us comfort] to know that we can back that into the R&D to match the need of the customer, [and it] gives us an opportunity for more of our growers to grow more hemp.”

Walters says that the partnership’s future is “wide open,” primarily due to the many uses of plastics.

“We don’t assume that this partnership will only be about blending recyclable plastics and hemp bioplastics,” he says. “We don’t make that assumption because we want to be able to use the R&D in whatever shape, form, or fashion that we want.”