This 12-Time NBA All-Star Is Making Autoparts With Plants, Predicts 'All Plastics Will Be Made From Cannabis'

By Javier Hasse and Nicolás José Rodríguez.

“I envision a future where the Fords, the GMs, the Stellantis’ of the world take plastics out of their automobiles and infuse them with industrial hemp to replace those plastics, thus reducing their carbon footprint,” says Isiah Thomas, NBA star, cannabis entrepreneur and CEO of One World Products OWPC, the largest Black-controlled, licensed hemp and cannabis producer in Colombia.

While this may sound innovative, even in 2022, hemp cars were actually a reality some 80 years before that. In 1941, Henry Ford presented a car prototype with a body made mostly from plant-derived materials like soybeans, wheat, hemp and flax. Taking it even further, Ford asked Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine, to develop a special, unique propulsion system for this car: the vehicle would also run on vegetable and hemp oil.

These days, Thomas’ company is working on hemp car parts as well. Per a recent agreement with Stellantis STLA, the sixth-largest automaker worldwide, owner of Chrysler, Citroën, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Peugeot and other portfolio brands, One World Products will develop and supply hemp-based bioplastic components for cars’ interiors and exteriors.

Hemp Glasses by Chanvre, COURTESY

According to a recent report, hemp isn’t only a more environmentally friendly option to traditional plastics, which would help curb the massive impact of the auto industry on CO2 emissions, but it’s also stronger than steel and lighter than glass fiber. Furthermore, many hemp plastics are fully biodegradable, making their production approach carbon neutrality.

While the hemp materials space is still not very crowded, a few other companies have recognized its potential as well. In Argentina, a brand called Chanvre makes the most beautiful hemp eyewear you’ve seen. Similarly, Nebraska’s Hemp3D, which also makes eyewear, recently released a chess set made with hemp. And, U.S.-based Santa Cruz Shredder also uses hemp plastics to make cannabis paraphernalia.

In 2019, the CEO of CBD company Elixinol Global, Paul Benhaim, launched the Hemp Plastic Company, with the intention of using the waste from the former’s CBD production to make hemp-based bioplastics. The Hemp Foundation does something similar. Meanwhile, Sana Packaging uses hemp and reclaimed plastics to make sustainable packaging for cannabis businesses.

Examples like these abound, and one thing is clear: the planet needs sustainable plastics, and these early entrants stand to benefit from this trend.

The Afro-Colombian Connection And Isiah’s Hemp Cars

“Think of us as the raw material supplier of hemp and cannabis to the industry. We cultivate and we grow in Colombia because of the equatorial advantages that it gives us, we work with the indigenous farmers, and we work with the soil and the sun. Not only in the CBD space but also in the hemp space,” Thomas explained in an exclusive interview during an event in Miami.

“We work closely with the auto industry to reduce its carbon footprint by replacing some of their plastics with hemp, we work in the construction space as well. When we look at plastic, anything will be made of hemp and we wanna be the biggest supplier of that. Not only can you use hemp to build the car, but for fuel, food, and plastics.”

In May, One World Products and AMUNAFRO, the National Association of Mayors of Municipalities with Afro-Colombian populations, announced that they had entered into a partnership to control over one million acres in Colombia to focus on industrial hemp production. One World will produce hemp and hemp derivates in association with local farmers to supply the auto industry among others, with plastic substitutes.

Thomas drilled down on issues like the need for a global productive transition to sustainable agriculture and manufacturing and reducing the carbon footprint. In addition, the CEO noted the comparative advantages that Colombia offers for growing hemp, including its people, its soil, and equatorial lighting.

“This plant is also one-stop shopping for the world. You have to have the supply to meet the demand (...) [and] we are looking to supply industries that are looking to make ‘the big shift’,” he added.

Austin Bryant, managing director of BastCore Inc., an 8-year-old company that converts hemp stalks into industrial materials like textiles, building materials, composites, oilfield chemicals and more, seems to share Thomas’ vision. When prompted about the issue, the hemp expert — not affiliated with One World Products in any way, said his team and him are “big believers in Isiah’s important and purposeful work.”

“Industrial hemp is a carbon sequestration heavyweight,” he explained. “For every acre of hemp grown, 9 tons of CO2 are captured. If we could get 1 million acres of hemp into our soil and harvest three times a year (hemp has a 90-day growth cycle), you're capturing a good bit of carbon. Replacing fossil fuel-based synthetics with fibers from plants will ensure brands hit their climate targets faster. The bigger picture is reducing the U.S. emission rate, which is certainly worth investing in.”

Local Farmers: A Vital Asset For The Cannabis Industry

For Thomas, human resources are vital for the production of high-quality goods, including hemp. Luckily, he was able to build from his experience in champagne, an industry where he’s already found success with his brand Cheurlin Champagne.

Local know-how can contribute to anticipating bottlenecks in the supply chain of cannabis companies, innovating and differentiating products, improving the use of resources and research, and preserving local culture and the environment.

“I didn't realize I was getting into the agricultural space when I got into champagne. I learned that the soil, the sun, and the farmers make the best grape. When I wanted to make the move in the cannabis space, to understand the business you know… the endocannabinoid system, the THC, etc, it became [a question of] ‘where is the best place where we can get the best of the best at the lowest price?’ And Colombia hit all the targets,” Thomas said.

The former NBA player also noted the company is anticipating a worldwide policy trend in the design of consumption goods and habits, that of sustainable materials with a negative carbon footprint.

“About the uses of hemp, we are talking about its thousands of applications. It is a big opportunity for us and for the world. We believe as the world continues to look at reducing the carbon footprint, the world will come back to a natural place, to the uses of hemp, and what it can do across the board,” Thomas explained.

The ‘THC Side’

As a former athlete, Thomas is excited about cannabinoids and what they can do for pain relief, sleep, and inflammation. He thinks cannabinoids have been invisibilized by negative propaganda, although people have used them for millennia.

“I think instinctively people always knew how effective this plant was. I thank the people in the room at the conference, for their diligence, their perseverance, and efforts to educate people about the benefits [of cannabis] because it works naturally with your body,” added the CEO. “When I look at it from an educational standpoint, the fascinating thing that I have discovered, when you look at Colombia, you have the Caribbean, you got the Atlantic, and you got the Pacific. Cultural differences coming together learning how to use the land for medicinal purposes, for eating purposes, is really unique, one plant does it all.”

-Cannabis is especially stigmatized in the world of sports, how do we overcome that?

We have to understand that the plant was put to sleep here in the industry so other synthetic industries and medicines could grow. And understand how the U.S. works from a business point of view. And give credit to those businesses for the propaganda that they used to leverage against the plant and the misinformation. Business-wise they did their thing. But this is the beauty of the plant. The plant is saying your time is up.

Encuentra nuestro contenido en español en El Planteo: Isiah Thomas Elogia a Ginóbili: ‘Verdaderamente Amo a Manu’

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This article was originally published on Forbes and appears here with permission.

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