SEWARD — In a basement here, and in a garage in Lincoln, two brothers are taking small steps to rid the planet of a glut of plastic refuse.
Andrew Bader, and his younger brother, Steve, make sunglasses and other products out of plastics infused with hemp fibers using high-tech 3D printers and an injection molding machine.
They say using a plant-based and biodegradable form of plastic in their Hemp3D business is as much about improving the environment as it is making a cool, marketable product that could provide full-time jobs for two farm boys looking for an alternative to growing corn and soybeans.
“The world is saturated with oil-based plastics. If we can get something that degrades faster in wider use, our world might be greener and our future a lot brighter,” said Andrew Bader, 26.
As he talked, 10 3D printers hummed in the basement of his ranch-style home in Seward, slowly fabricating parts of sunglasses. A sign reading “Think Outside the Box” hung on a wall nearby.
In a garage in Lincoln, his 24-year-old brother Steve uses a refrigerator-sized, plastic injection molding machine to produce up to 40 pairs of their HempVision sunglasses a day using a slightly different mix of ingredients.
Their prototype pair of sunglasses was made in 2019. Now, the company produces 11 models, from ones that look vaguely like Ray-Bans to a pair that Joe Naumann, the Baders’ cousin and marketing director, describes as a “combination of Elton John, Johnny Depp and Harry Potter.”
“They’re bio-based and made in Nebraska — people like that,” Naumann said.
Hemp3D is one of a small group of Nebraska companies making products out of hemp, a non-hallucinogenic cousin of marijuana that was illegal to grow in the state until 2019. That’s when state lawmakers, after years of debate and after hemp growing was authorized by the 2018 federal farm bill, legalized the cultivation and processing of hemp as long as its level of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — tests at 0.3% or lower.
But the industry has been slow to take off, even though hemp grows like a literal weed in Nebraska, as evidenced by roadside-ditch plants that climb 9 feet tall and taller.
The state currently has 62 licensed hemp growers, up from an initial 10 growers licensed in 2019. This year, 886 acres were permitted for planting hemp outdoors, along with 266,613 square feet in greenhouses.
But Andrew Bish, who markets hemp harvesting equipment as part of his farm equipment business in Giltner, said that the state’s lack of hemp processing facilities has retarded the growth of the industry.
Currently, there are only two hemp processing facilities in the state, one in Pleasanton and another in Omaha. They process hemp into CBD oil — CBD or cannabidiol, is the main ingredient in medical cannabis, and doesn’t provide a “high.” But prices for CBD collapsed a couple of years ago, Bish said, and have yet to recover.
So, he said, attention has shifted to growing hemp for its fibers, which can be used in construction materials and clothing, and for its seed and meal, which can be used as animal and pet feed. Companies producing plant-based hamburger are also looking at using protein-rich hemp meal, Bish said.
“We’re starting to see that happen,” he said.
Sweetwater Hemp Company, located in the central Nebraska farm town of Pleasanton, started producing CBD earlier this year and makes a variety of products, including ointments, edibles and smokable flowers, that have been billed as effective in treating joint pain and anxiety and as a sleep aid.
The company, which was already providing herbs for dozens of Walmart stores, uses a “solvent-free” ice-water extraction machine — the largest in the U.S. — to extract the CBD oil from hemp plants. Ice-water extraction produces a purer product, according to Brett Mayo, chief of marketing and extraction for Sweetwater Hemp.
But he said the CBD business in Nebraska won’t really take off until the state legalizes cannabis for medicinal uses.
Right now, the Bader brothers and Naumann market their sunglasses and other products at trade shows and farmers markets, and via their Hemp3D.com website. They are producing some custom orders, such as hemp plastic keychains imprinted with a logo, and a plate for tailgating that includes a handy holder for a beverage. They also make hemp chess sets, and a line of bowls and display boxes, as well as can openers, guitar picks and earrings.
“It is as much art and fashion as it is a manufacturing company,” Andrew Bader said, as he assembled a pair of sunglasses.
Former Nebraska Secretary of State Allen Beermann, who is among the brothers’ early customers, said it’s fun to wear the hemp shades.
“People ask ‘where did you get those glasses?’” Beermann said. “When I tell them they’re made of hemp, they’re really stunned.”
As for the future, the brothers are looking to rent a facility and expand production, and hoping to lure investors so they can upgrade the molds they use to fashion their sunglasses.
“We need to scale up to really get out in all the stores we want to be in,” Andrew Bader said.
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Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.