The problem with indigo dye

Indigo, a color that changed the world, is an incredible colour for so many reasons. Mesmerizing, striking and much loved, the colour itself is a heady mix between Violet and Blue and has been intrinsic to many cultures throughout history and continues to inspire creativity today.

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People have been wearing blue jeans for centuries. Originally, the blue color came from a natural indigo dye. The dye was chosen for the way it interacted with cotton. When heated, most dyes penetrate the cotton fibers but indigo dye attaches to the fiber's surface, instead. The result? During each wash, some of the fibers and dye molecules escape, giving jeans that signature faded look over time.

Today, jeans are dyed with a synthetic indigo dye. Take a closer look and you'll see a clever design. The warp thread is dyed but the weft thread is left white. This reduces the amount of dye needed for each pair of jeans. It's also why many jeans are blue on the outside but white on the inside. Each pair of jeans requires 3-12 grams of dye. Each year, we produce several hundred thousand tons of indigo dye. Most of that is mused for making blue jeans. Do the math, that's between 90 million to 2.2 billion new jeans per year. Looks like this fashion trend will stick around for a while.

Historically, dyes came from nature, with primary sources consisting of animals or plants. The majority of these came from roots, berries, bark, leaves, wood, and other organic, naturally occurring substances such as fungi. Indigo was probably the oldest known natural indigo dye. Indigo is derived from plants. There are many native plants that can produce indigo – some things you would never suspect like rhubarb and cabbage can provide the blue hue! Actually, I thought this is not 100% correct, since there is so much synthetic indigo nowadays. So what makes us firmly believe that this kind of indigo dye will certainly not pollute the environment. Is this true? Actually, no. Pollution is still existing,since the dyed textiles are difficult to decompose.

Some mordants are acidic, but clothing companies most commonly use mordants made from metals like chromium or aluminum. Alum is slightly safer than chrome, but both kill off plants exposed to factory waste water, destroy ecosystems, poison drinking water, and generally are awful. They are, though, why your jeans fade so perfectly while your t-shirts just eventually all equalize to the same shade of puce or mauve or some other tone reached after five-plus years of the sweat-sun-wash cycle.

Aside from the dreaded mordants, natural indigo dye isn't great for the planet either. It's extra slow to decompose, it darkens river water so flora and fauna are starved of sunlight and oxygen, and, due to our love for artfully pre-faded jeans, an excessive amount of it is sent out into the world from factories.

The Rise of Synthetic Dyes

During the 1850s, the use of natural dyes slowly declined, and the rise of synthetic dyes started taking place, and it happened for a number of reasons.

The Industrial Revolution led to the growth of the textile industry, which also spurred the increase in demand for dyes that are cost-effective, readily available and easy to apply. As a result, the economic limitations of harnessing natural dyes were revealed such as the vast area of land needed for its production and the consistency and staying power of the color they give off.

The study of coal and tar also laid the groundwork for the rise of synthetic dye use. In 1850, coal tar was not widely used. However, it still attracted the attention of a lot of chemists as being a source of new organic compounds.

One of the leading researchers that studied coal and tar was German chemist, August Wilhelm von Hoffman. He directed the Royal College of Chemistry in England in 1845. For the next 20 years, he trained most chemists in the English dye industry including William H. Perkin who discovered the first synthetic dye called mauve. His discovery marks the rise of synthetic dye development and the gradual decline of natural dye use. While mauve only lasted in the market for a short while, its creation paved the way for further research and development of synthetic dyes.

Because of the development of mauve, English textile manufacturers demanded for new dyes. Through studies and further development, coal tar was discovered to yield other useful dyes. By 1900, more than 50 compounds have been isolated from coal tar, most of which were used for the German chemical industry. The synthetic dye industry was firmly established in Germany in 1914.

From then on until today, synthetic dyes are still widely used in different industries. Through the years, continuous efforts and studies were conducted to further develop synthetic dyes, make it more sustainable, expand its use to other fields, and lessen its impact on the environment.

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How to reduce the pollution of indigo dye?

Indigo dye is a pursuing of art. So there is no reason to stop the exploring of these indigo dye enthusiasm. What human beings need to do is to reduce the effect which caused by indigo dye processing. But how to do this?

A survey has been showed that structural coloration enables natural fibers to absorb dyes and toxins in water can also make fabric dyes—and mordants—obsolete. Although this nanotechnology hasn't been tested thoroughly enough yet to say whether it's entirely environmentally safe, but it's certainly not as massively damaging to the environment and human health as the current dye problem.  

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