Leather becomes the material of the future

Redwood Comment
Published:  11 March, 2020
Dr Mike Redwood

I have just ended a rather tough week. For four days I was away studying plastics, and then I went to see the recently released film Dark Waters. 

Dark Waters is a film about perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA was used to make fluoropolymers for many really useful items such as Teflon and especially PTFE, which is the basis of Goretex (processing methods appear to have been changed in 2002 and since 2014 Gore has been totally PFOA free).

Chemical madness
DuPont bought their PFOA from 3M and carelessly disposed of the waste from the processes they developed with it over a number of decades. In doing so they ignored the 3M recommendations for waste and the written advice of their own staff and head toxicologists. The film chronicles a twenty-year legal battle, still ongoing, demonstrating their awareness that the waste was extremely dangerous to health, yet they chose to lobby, prevaricate and hide from the fact they knew their waste PFOA had damaged the health of whole communities through the contamination of drinking water. PFOA does not breakdown, but continues to build up in bodies of water, animals and humans creating cancers and birth defects. It appears that this even occurred with some DuPont staff and workers, but the jobs were secure and well paid in a depressed community, so people were unwilling to complain. DuPont – and now others as the company split in three recently - have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars, but those affected have had to fight tooth and nail for every penny.

“Better Things for Better Living … Through Chemistry”
The leather industry has had to spend quite a lot of time over the last decade arguing in support of chemistry in the leather industry and some of our activities have not been worthy, but with the exception of smallish localised sectors, where law enforcement is weak and corruption high, we can be generally proud of our industry over the last two decades or more. A film like this relating facts about chemicals that we have been persuaded to trust from companies that we respect, companies whose motto in 1935 was proclaimed as “Better Things for Better Living … Through Chemistry” is infuriating. What is more, DuPont continue to produce and promote new polymers of the sort I learnt about last week on my plastics course. It was no more re-assuring.

Plastics appear to be designed to do two things: fail quite quickly and last forever. The failure comes from the additives used in their production; things like stabilisers, plasticisers and lubricants - and then applying to a base material. Again, the base materials are typically polyester, cotton, nylon, or rayon plasticisers which slide out of the plastic and disturb the integrity of the article the plastic has been used for. However, as the article disintegrates more or less in front of your eyes, the remaining items will end up in landfill, lasting five hundred years or more. Remember, a lot of dreadful leather substitutes are coated with polyvinylchloride (PVC), best recognised by the old name vinyl. PVC became a particular issue as it was being recommended for medical products on the grounds it was chemically inert and non-toxic while all along it was being plasticised with dangerous phthalates.

Not all plastics are bad and plastics have been important in the development of 20th century society. Many of the first plastics were designed to stop mankind destroying the planet in the search for materials like ivory to make endless balls for pool and snooker tables. Yet, now we are producing huge amounts of plastic from non-renewable fossil fuel sources and releasing equally huge amounts of CO2 in the process. Bioplastics are starting to help, and if they are from the right plant source, they will certainly aid with the CO2 aspect, but few are really biodegradable and more often than not only 20% or less will actually biodegrade, often only in perfect conditions of aeration, humidity and temperature which are hard to find. The remainder ends up in tiny particles in landfill, or more often than not in the oceans. Recycling capabilities with plastics are limited and global collection woeful.

As we watch the horror of a pandemic overwhelming the globe, does it not make all society consider that we need to consume less, consume better products and keep them longer? Most of all, stay closer to nature for more sustainability and demand a level of integrity from all stakeholders in the leather industry, a lot higher than that being shown elsewhere in society. Leather becomes the material of the future.

Mike Redwood
March 11, 2020

mike@internationalleathermaker.com
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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