Of course, enforcement is often the actual issue here. The success of the Factory Act in the UK, back in 1832, to control child labour and get all children to school was the establishment of an inspectorate to police the factories and ensure the law was being obeyed.

Given these two conditions, that there are fair laws and proper enforcement, we can expect change. This is what we have seen in most of the leather industry over the past three decades or so. So much so that new generations of owners and managers are now mostly minded that they want to push to the limits of best practice and beyond. They want to keep researching for even better ways of doing things. Talking with many of them it is clear that this comes from inner beliefs in doing the right thing, and is not wound up in some short-term gimmick to sell more leather.

Where tanning has most of its difficulty is with those who are not willing to accept the solid and liquid waste streams as their responsibility and ship them out at the lowest possible cost, without consideration for their neighbours, the land, the rivers, the groundwater or the planet. Hence, achieving a culture change is vital.

Culture change

With such a cultural change comes future advantages; those who have gone to pyrolytic burning have found that large amounts of their energy usage, if not all, are paid for. Limeyard fleshings are easily sent for gelatine or converted to valuable bio-diesel.

At a fascinating two-day meeting in Cologne recently organised and hosted by Lanxess, I heard about another innovation with which tanners can minimise the cost of waste, turning it into a raw material. We heard a little about it last year, but it was only when the full philosophy was laid out that its significance really hit home.

A truly creative idea

Lanxess has developed with a Leverkusen-based research institute, INVITE, a modular plant that can use shavings and organic biomass to create what they call “X-Biomer” retanning agents for manufacturing leather. The manufacturing equipment is designed for use directly on-site at the tanneries with feasibility tests currently taking place with the third project partner, the Heller-Leder tannery based in Hehlen, Lower Saxony. 

This is truly a creative idea. What has been a difficult solid waste, contentiously defined in many countries as a chemical waste, becomes a raw material for the further processing of leather. Lanxess estimates that a medium-sized tannery produces between one and two metric tons of shavings a day, so by using this production plant, the tannery could manufacture a comparable volume of liquid X-Biomer directly on site. All of the waste is recycled, leaving no residue, and without generating any emissions. Lanxess makes it clear this is an approach the company intends to continue to develop, rather than a one-off idea.

This does exactly what we have been discussing, and the Chinese government are hoping for, thinking creatively to reduce or eliminate wastes. It also rethinks some fundamental ways of doing business, so it is an approach where everyone will have to respect intellectual property.

Dr Mike Redwood

January 17, 2018


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