Aug 25, 2023
by Karl Smith
Black Is The New Black: The Future of Pigment Is Plant-Based
by Karl Smith
Aug 25, 2023

Dye. It’s pretty much everywhere and in pretty much everything. In one form or another, the number of times per day that the average person comes into contact with some kind of pigment is far too high to count.

That might not register as important information – after all, it’s just a bit of color, right? – but that’s where you’d be wrong. It’s not just that dye is everywhere that matters, but the effects of that dye on human beings, on wildlife, and on the planet.

And that’s particularly true when it comes to black. Or, to give it its proper and somewhat more ominous name, Carbon Black.

Manufactured rather naturally occurring, Carbon Black doesn’t come with the same warning signs as – say, for example – one of those poisonous tree frogs or the kinds of red berry so bright it’s basically a sign that says “Do not eat me.”

No, instead, Carbon Black is not only ubiquitous but also pretty innocuous – anonymous, even. And that’s the problem.

“I always say that we touch carbon black pigments everyday,” explains Jane Palmer, founder and CEO of alternative pigment company Nature Coatings Inc. “They are everywhere– on our computer keyboards, our phone cases, food packaging, clothing, cars, furniture etc. and they contain substances known to cause cancer.” (The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies carbon black as a possible human carcinogen.)

Scott Fulbright, CEO and co-founder of Living Ink – another next-gen materials company, working on alternative options with algae – echoes Palmer’s sentiments: “On a daily basis we are surrounded by materials that are toxic to humans and the ecosystem that are not the “don’t drink or you will die right away” chemicals,” Fulbright confirms.”For example, Carbon Black contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are associated with cardiovascular diseases and potentially even cognitive development. Almost all yellow pigments contain PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) that have been linked to cancers, reduced IQs and suppressed immune systems. It’s the everyday exposure to these types of chemicals that can lead to issues…even if it’s not immediate. The EPA regulates nearly 80,000 different chemicals, which most have not been studied in depth and they are in our workplaces, homes and everyday products. Once we know for a fact that a chemical such as carbon black causes issues we should educate and work on replacing it with alternatives.”

“I think it’s difficult because humans are typically more shortsighted than long sighted. As a scientist, I have attended numerous meetings regarding toxicity and it makes me not want to sit on a couch or drink from a plastic cup.” – Scott Fulbright, CEO and Co-Founder at Living Ink

All of which sounds a little like fear mongering – as Palmer puts it, “That’s a super scary statement, but it’s also true!” – but, despite what the name may suggest, these aren’t just scary stories. It’s not about frightening people, it’s about education.

“Many industrial and commercial black pigments available are petroleum based. There are real solutions in the world of pigments to reduce our reliance on petroleum-based products,” notes Mark Sunderland, Chief Innovation Officer at plant pigment specialist Hemp Black, pointing to the company’s own eco6 product.

So, to circle back a little and start at the beginning, what is Carbon Black and why does it matter?

Produced by the “partial burning and pyrolysis of oil residues or natural gas at high temperatures,” Carbon Black is basically – as the International Carbon Black Association puts it – “pure elemental carbon.”

Now, health risks aside, we’re off to a bad start here. While words like “pure” and “elemental” suggest a natural and inert product, the reality is that we’re talking about burning petrochemicals. Which also means we’re talking about carbon released into the atmosphere – along with other chemical products – as well as in its final form as Carbon Black particles.

Now, all of that makes Carbon Black sound pretty heavy duty – which, of course, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s reserved for heavy-duty uses.

Living Ink has a pretty solid definition and equally solid explanation as to how broad of an issue this really is: “Carbon black is a pigment used within the ink, textiles, plastics and rubber industries,” the company’s website explains, painting a pretty clear picture of just how widely used Carbon Black is.

“It is derived from heavy petroleum such as FCC tar, coal tar or ethylene cracking tar,” the explainer continues, and, “is listed as a class 2b carcinogen according the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Thus, carbon black is hazardous to human health, causes environmental degradation, and is produced using finite resources.”

And it’s this wide application that really sets alarm bells ringing: the fact that Carbon Black finds its way into so many facets of everyday life means it’s manufactured on a scale to match. Inks, dyes, and pigments may sound like something of a niche issue, but this couldn’t be further from the reality.

“In the long run, it’s going to be major corporation embracing better practices wholesale that pushes the price of higher-quality, more environmentally progressive products down.” – Jane Palmer, Founder & CEO of Nature Coatings Inc.

But getting that message across isn’t always the easiest. The toxicity of dye production, of the dyeing process, and of inorganic dyes themselves, isn’t so much difficult to explain as it is difficult to convey in the same way you might when talking about the problems of wastage and overproduction or single-use plastics. You can’t just show a big heap of clothes at landfill or a cluster of water bottles washed up on the beach.

This is color we’re talking about. It feels intangible. But it isn’t. It’s real – and so is its impact.

But still, education is the first step. “I think there are a lot of ways to get this across,” begins Palmer. “We have great examples from lead in toys and PFAFS in plastics.  In both cases, consumers were made aware of these toxins through media, like yourself, non-profits and others. Once people know that they are handling things that are bad for themselves or their families everyday, they demand better and corporations/manufacturers start to look for alternatives.”

It is, however, only the first step – awareness without an alternative is something of a fool’s game. You can’t tell people that something so ingrained in their lives and expect them to make a change if you’re not offering one. Education, essentially, doesn’t go far without a solution.

“I think it’s difficult because humans are typically more shortsighted than long sighted,” Fulbright suggests. Rather than advocating for panic, though, he is pushing for curiosity – for a drive to question the things around us that we take for granted: “As a scientist, I have attended numerous meetings regarding toxicity and it makes me not want to sit on a couch or drink from a plastic cup. I think the message is quite broad right now – we need to think about all the things we touch, use and ingest on a daily basis. Where does it come from? Whom is it harming in the production of the material and is it harming you and your family in its lifecycle as a product?”

In finding a parallel for the messaging, Sunderland points to a familiar hot topic: “Recycle or “don’t buy” virgin plastics offers a solution which might be described as temporary. Pushing the problem onto the next generation. Can we recycle the present product at the end of its life into another future product? Recycling is great but there must be a vision beyond.”

That’s where companies like Nature Coatings Inc., Living Ink and Hemp Black come in – each of them on a mission to introduce and scale a viable alternative to Carbon Black. Nature Coatings works with wood waste, Living Ink with algae and Hemp Black with – well, you guessed it – hemp. All of which, needless to say, are more sustainable and much less harmful materials than combusted fossil fuels.

“The solution is for corporations to adopt better and safer technology. We need governments to update their regulations on chemicals that they know cause cancer and hurt us as people and the environment.” – Jane Palmer, Founder and CEO of Nature Coatings Inc.

For Palmer, the material choice was – among other things – a matter of transparency. An antidote to the obfuscation of carbon-derived coloration. “We wanted our pigment and dispersions to be fully traceable and certified. We don’t green wash anything,” she explains, continuing, “We use only fully traceable and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood waste. FSC is a very strict, global certifying body that ensures all wood is coming from sustainably managed forests.”

It’s also a question of impact – of never, as they say, robbing Peter to pay Paul when it comes to getting ahold of the required materials and generating excess production for Nature Coating’s needs: “We only use the waste from the waste.  Meaning that first the wood goes to the paper or lumber mill, then their waste goes to chipboard makers, and then their waste goes somewhere else and then we get it. If we don’t take it, it usually gets burned and the ash is landfilled.  So we are preventing landfill use and excessive CO2 emissions from burning.”

For Sunderland and Hemp Black, it’s all about the long game – looking into the past to pave the way for a more sustainable future: “Hemp has been used as fiber and material for many generations. Based on my past and present work, research in commercial space of high-performance materials and products at Thomas Jefferson University, I was part of a team working on the industrial uses for hemp. Hemp has the ability to utilize a multiplicity of bio-based material assets specific to the hemp plant”

“Additionally,” he adds, “its ability to sequester and capture CO2 plus the performance value as a material, could drive a new economy; “Hemp Economy”. Delivering value to farmers, consumers and the planet.”

“We need to improve the sustainability of raw materials and processing. I think pragmatic solutions are critical. For example, using biomass that already exists in large scale from algae to shrimp shells to grass. I get excited about these solutions because the biomass to the solution exists and can be scaled quickly.” – Scott Fulbright, CEO and Co-Founder at Living Ink

In terms of scale, having just worked with Nike on its latest collaboration with Billie Eilish, Living Ink’s success is proof positive of what can be achieved with the backing of corporate infrastructure – convincing big brands and big corporations that, actually, alternatives to Carbon Black are not only viable in terms of production volume but also just as financially viable as their petro-based predecessor.

“At the moment working with brands on a project by project basis is exciting,” Fulbright says, when asked about the role that brands like Nike can play in bringing alternatives to the world. “It builds credibility and trust between brands and material innovators and factory partners. These launches tell a story and demonstrate industry success in adopting a novel material. However, as time goes on material innovators will need to get leadership buy-in where larger volumes of products can be committed to. I believe with brand commitment of continuing to adopt sustainable materials it will lead to a critical mass for innovators to scale and work with many, many brands.”

“Scaling biomaterials has and continues to be a challenge,” Fulbright offers with a sense of cautious optimism. “In order to scale demand needs to be there and in order for demand…scale needs to be there. Thus, partnering with strategic industry partners or brands is critical in my mind to scale these processes. With scale comes lower pricing and better distribution, etc. Thus, I think a critical mass is needed to adopt these technologies (even at very small scale to start).”


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From Hemp Black’s perspective, Sunderland notes that, “There has been a focus, on products “hemp” can impact.” Retro-fitting hemp on to these existing products – building materials, textiles, material, composites – leads to what Sunderland calls a “dessert-first experience,” relegating the innovation to an entree of sorts before the main event rather than a product in its own right – a point of view which, as you’d expect, he strongly disagrees with.

“For hemp to deliver scalable solutions, it has to function as a globe economy,” Sunderland further explains. “Data and metrics will lead to classification of the fiber similar to the way cotton and wool are classified. This will push us towards better products and globalized outlook.”

“Any opportunity where hemp bio-based solutions can replace petroleum products or “forever” chemicals in existing or future supply chains or products is a better future for people and the planet.” – Mark Sunderland, Chief Innovation Officer at Hemp Black

Palmer, too, has some strong thoughts on this subject. “It has to be the same price and perform the same or better as the status quo. Unfortunately right now, both corporations and consumers are not willing to pay more, or much more, just because something is more sustainable for the environment.”

It’s a statement made without a hint resignation. Palmer, like Sunderland and their contemporaries at other companies like Living Ink, is aware of the uphill battle but also aware – and, if anything, energized by – the fact that the battle can be won.

To riff on a phrase so often wheeled out to talk about trends in the fashion industry: black is still very much the new black, but the future of pigment is plant-based.