The Color Green Is, Ironically, Pretty Toxic

updated May 8, 2019
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Anyone even remotely informed about the environment and sustainable design knows that the color green is the go-to visual representation, via branding and packaging, that a product is sustainable, organic, or eco-friendly. But a fascinating article recently in The New York Times points out the cruel fact that most forms of the color green are manufactured in ways that are ecologically irresponsible, and in some cases severely damaging to the environment. How’s that for irony?

Michael Braungart, the German chemist who co-wrote Cradle to Cradle says that “the color green can never be green, because of the way it is made. It’s impossible to dye plastic green or to print green ink on paper without contaminating them.” Green is apparently a very difficult color to manufacture, and it requires toxic substances to stabilize it. Therefore, green-colored plastic, paper and packaging cannot be recycled or composted safely, because of the risk of contamination.

Here’s a bit of an excerpt from the article:

Take Pigment Green 7, the commonest shade of green used in plastics and paper. It is an organic pigment but contains chlorine, some forms of which can cause cancer and birth defects. Another popular shade, Pigment Green 36, includes potentially hazardous bromide atoms as well as chlorine; while inorganic Pigment Green 50 is a noxious cocktail of cobalt, titanium, nickel and zinc oxide.
Green even has a toxic history. Some early green paints were so corrosive that they burnt into canvas, paper and wood. Many popular 18th- and 19th-century green wallpapers and paints were made with arsenic, sometimes with fatal consequences. One of those paints, Scheele’s Green, invented in Sweden in the 1770s, is thought by some historians to have killed Napoleon Bonaparte in 1821, when lethal arsenic fumes were released from the rotting green and gold wallpaper in his damp cell on the island of Saint Helena.

How did we forget green’s toxic history? Well, in 1971 Canadian protesters chartered a ship to campaign against nuclear testing in Alaska, and called it “Greenpeace.” Then by the late 1970s, “Green Parties” were emerging all over the world including “Die Grünen” in Germany, “Groen!” in Belgium and “Les Verts” in France.

Read the whole article here.

(Image: Cambria Bold)