Did you know that the cannabis plant is a powerhouse in the field of sustainability?
Our environment is currently hanging in the balance, and the only way to tip the scales in our favor is to start doing more healing the planet than harming it. To us, there’s no surprise in the fact that just when we need it most, hemp is coming through to save the day. But what does this simple plant offer that’s so critical to our survival?
Aside from being used in the manufacturing of sustainable products and absorbing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, hemp has another use: it can help the soil.
But how? And are there actual solutions that can be applied on a larger scale here? Today we take a look.
Hemp Has a Deep Taproot
The roots are where a plant uptakes much of its water and nutrients. Some plants have shallow roots, and some have deeper roots. Plants with deeper roots tend to be more drought resistant, as they can draw water from deeper in the soil. But the plants aren’t the only thing that benefits from deep roots…
A deeper taproot can also nurture the soil by turning up fresh soil every harvest… Not to mention the fact that such roots can help clean contaminants from deeper layers of soil.
Yes, you heard that right. Plants can clean the soil. In this case, hemp performs especially well at such tasks! But how?
It’s called phytoremediation. Say it with us… ‘phyto-remediation’. So, what is it?
WHAT IS PHYTOREMEDIATION
When the plant is used in the process of cleansing of the soil, sediments and water bodies (whether surface water or groundwater) by removing, transferring or stabilizing contaminating materials, it is known as phytoremediation. This falls under bioremediation, which is the use of organisms to remove contaminating materials from the soil and water. Examples of plant used are hemp, poplar trees, and cotton trees
HOW DOES PHYTOREMEDIATION WORK
It depends on what your goal is. There are different types of phytoremediation, and each has specific application to different types of cleanup projects. These are called phytoremediation mechanisms.
Different plants display different mechanisms, all of which can help heal soil in their own way.
Here’s a little overview on what we know…
Rhizosphere biodegradation: The act of using plants to produce nutrients that feed microbes living within contaminated soil. In this mechanism, the microbes being fed do all of the cleaning. They proceed to break down materials that have polluted the soil.
Phyto-stabilization: Plants feed off the contaminating substances, but do not degrade the compounds. Rather, it inhibits the movement of the materials and isolates them within the plant. This is not a degrading process, but the contaminated can be disposed of correctly once the waste has been absorbed.
Phyto-accumulation: This is not a degrading process, either. Also commonly known as ‘phytoextraction’, this method is primarily for waste containing metals and suitable for use when talking about industrial wastes.
Hydroponic Systems: This mechanism works exactly like rhizosphere biodegradation but can be used to clean up polluted bodies of water.
Phyto-volatilization: A mechanism in which plants absorb the contaminating materials through the root and release them into the air using their leaves.
Phyto-degradation: This is a degradative process in which plants can be used to absorb contaminating materials and destroy them in their tissues.
Industrial hemp demonstrates ‘Phyto-accumulation’ (also known as phytoextraction), which can be used to clean up heavy metals and industrial waste.
WHAT TYPE OF WASTE CAN ‘PHYTOREMEDIATORS’ CLEAN UP?
Metals most commonly used with this process are grouped into three based on their availability and they are;
- Readily available: they are easily absorbed by the root of the plants used such as zinc, cadmium, and arsenic
- Moderately available: they are not as readily absorbed e.g iron, manganese
iii. Not readily available: these are heavy metals and nuclear materials such as lead and uranium
The availability of the metals can be heightened using boosters on the soil. Examples of boosters used are ammonium nitrate NH4NO3 and citric acid, which are said to boost the ability to intake the nuclear materials ‘cesium’ and ‘uranium’.
After the total accumulation of the contaminating materials/metal, the plant used must not be consumed. Once the plants have been removed from the site, one two things must be done with them:
- The metal content can be obtained from the plant using heat by smelting the plant, at which point the metal contents can be analyzed for recycling or recovery.
- Depending on the level of contamination and the metals involved, the plants can be treated as high-level waste. Once signed off on, the plants can be disposed of based on legal guidelines on how to treat the removed substances. This is most suitable when talking about more dangerous pollutants – such as nuclear waste.
WHAT PLANTS ARE USED AS PHYTO-REMEDIATORS
There are many plants used in Phyto-remediation. While there are no general properties to take note of, most of them have a very long taproot in common. As we spoke about earlier, a long taproot can benefit the soil by absorbing the waste within it. Then whether it degrades, accumulates, or release the contaminated materials depends on the physiological properties of the plants themselves.
So, let’s talk about hemp for a second.
Hemp is basically a modern word to describe low-THC cultivars of Cannabis sativa. Has a lot of purposes due to its unique chemical composition, it is a very good phytoremediator due to its very long taproot. It is used in the removal of heavy metals and nuclear waste
HEMP IN CLEANING NUCLEAR WASTE
Hemp has been used in numerous areas around the world to effectively demonstrate the phytoremediation properties within plants. Most notably, it was used after the nuclear disaster that occurred in 1986, when more than 100,000km² was labeled radioactive and unsafe to live. The countries involved were Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus – and the contaminated soil could not be used.
In 1998 Phytotech, a company that specializes in phytoremediation, worked in cooperation with the Consolidated Grower and Processors (CGP) and the Ukraine Institute of Bast Crop to conduct an important experiment…
This experiment was testing whether or not it’s reasonable to apply the soil-cleansing abilities of hemp (among a number of other plants) on areas affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It seemed that it was showing promising results, but shortfalls in financing and cases of missing research rendered this experiment ‘lost in the void’. In ‘Cleaning Soil’, writers actually claimed that Phytotech found hemp to be “most efficient plant useful for eliminating toxins such as metals, solvents, pesticides, residues from explosions, etc. from contaminated topsoil.”
…But we may never know for sure.
It’s certainly disappointing that there hasn’t been more research done into using hemp to clean up our earth… or any plant for that matter! But we hope this will change soon.
As the word starts to spread about the natural tools nature has given us to survive, we anticipate that cannabis will be a much more common name in the up and coming generation of biologists. Based on how hemp has been used to clean soil in the past, we think it will certainly play a role in cleaning up our environment in the future…
…And phytoremediation is just the start.
This industry is going to help the environment in more ways than one. But we’ll get to some others next time.
If you enjoyed this, learned something new, or have something to add, we’d love to hear from you! Just drop a comment below, or get in touch with us on any of our social media platforms.
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