The color green isn’t as green as it seems, according to the New York Times, which reports that the chemicals typically used to pigment plastic or paper with shades of green are actually toxic and harmful to the environment. So harmful, in fact, that green-colored plastic and paper cannot be recycled or composted safely.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” said Michael Braungart, a German chemist and co-author of Cradle to Cradle, the best-selling sustainable design book. “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.”
Revered throughout history as a symbol for pristine nature and paradise, the color may also owe some of its reverence to its lack of attainability. From the Italian Renaissance to 18th-century Romanticism, artists have struggled to reproduce accurate shades of green paint. Even today, the difficulty in manufacturing the color means that toxic substances are often used to stabilize it.
For instance, Pigment Green 7, the most common shade of green used in plastics and paper, contains chlorine, some forms of which can cause cancer and birth defects. Pigment Green 36 includes potentially hazardous bromide atoms as well as chlorine, and Pigment Green 50 might contain the deadliest mix of all — a soup of cobalt, titanium, nickel and zinc oxide.
But modern industry isn’t all to blame; green paints and dyes have a long history of toxicity. Early green paints were so corrosive that they often burned into canvas, paper and wood. Green wallpaper made with arsenic may even be to blame for Napoleon Bonaparte’s death in 1821, who passed away in a damp cell at Saint Helena surrounded by rotting green and gold walls.
The unfortunate irony is that while green has come to symbolize a reverence for nature, our futile attempts to replicate the color synthetically are harming the environment. As companies print more and more green paraphernalia in their efforts to advertise green, environmentally friendly products, they may be increasing the production of and demand for these toxic mixtures.
“Getting the right tones of artificial green is always difficult, and there’s often something disturbing about the result,” said the Dutch product designer Hella Jongerius. “Whereas all shades of green look beautiful in nature.”
Perhaps there’s a redeeming symbolism in the color after all: that preserving nature’s beauty can only be accomplished through the preservation of nature itself. No amount of industrial ingenuity, artificial substitutes, or human management can suffice for what is truly, naturally green.