Extracting the chromium

The Redwood blog
Published:  06 February, 2014

Fast fashion is not a good concept. Being responsive to customers is good. Breaking down the traditional two seasons a year and doing things differently is good. But an industry that ignores quality, in the traditional sense, and makes things for short-term use and then a quick journey to landfill is not a proper business. 

Thankfully leather does not suit fast fashion. With all its qualities the one aspect of leather that stands out is endurance. When was the last time your shoe uppers wore out. Leather soles do wear out but can be replaced offering years of extra use. Leather items last, most for a very long time, and quite lot of items end up as family heirlooms.

While articles made of leather last longer than those of plastic and textiles they do not all last for ever. So if we are to be a responsible industry we need to think about what happens at the end of life of an article. We are part of a long chain from, as Leather Naturally! puts it, from the "animal to artefact" and our support and technical knowledge is needed at every stage. Given that Americans buy over seven pairs of shoes a year and Europeans around five pairs, and allowing that the proportion that are made with leather last longer than other shoes it is still a lot of leather going to landfill.

Chromium in landfill

Most of those leather shoes contain chromium, and we know from all the recently published documents from the IULTCS that this is harmless and impossible to convert to CrVI, but that does not mean that it is right to put all that chromium into landfill. Basically following the basics of he circular economy chemicals such as chromium have no place in landfill and they stop the organic nutrients in the leather being able to add anything back to the planet at the same time. Most of our colleagues argue that chromium is plentiful and has little chance of running out but an article in the New Scientist two years ago quoted Armin Reller of the University of Augsburg and Tom Graedel of Yale University that there was chromium left for a 143 years at current consumption but only 40 if the per capita consumption moved up to the level in the US. So whatever opinion you hold the leather industry should not be putting chromium into landfill.

We have good methods of getting chromium out of leather and in the USA for tannery wastes for decades chromium has been extracted and the residue used as a fertiliser. The nature of US society has meant this has led to some extracted legal cases, mostly speculative, but it appears that the Environment Agency in the US has solidly backed this as good scientifically sound procedure. When there were large numbers of shoe leather tanners in the US this practise was more widespread, and some tanners took in waste trimmings from shoe factories.

Now is the time to revisit these systems, to perfect the technology and to find ways to work with manufacturers, brands and retailers to stop chrome containing leather scrap ever reaching landfill. A challenge for our industry.

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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