Inspiration for a greener tanning industry from the Arzignano tanning district.

A green future for the leather sector? Here are the ongoing research lines

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What are current research lines regarding a greater sustainability tomorrow? Roberto Mariano Mecenero of Conceria Dani and Giancarlo Lovato of Corichem help us to identify them.

“Let’s start with the salt –  explains Mecenero – that is used in large quantities for the preservation of hides but that it is difficult to treat during the purification phase with the current technologies. We need to reduce its consumption, for example by favouring hides that arrive in refrigerated trucks, without being subject to a salting process”.

Another sensitive aspect is linked to the sulphides, responsible for the typical foul-smell of the areas where the first stage of the leather treatment, hair removal from hides, takes place. “With the greenLIFE project, we have studied an oxidative liming with sodium and hydrogen peroxide, free of sulphides. This alternative process enables the recovery of organic material obtained from the hides during the liming phase which basically consists of protein materials. Their use in the agri-food industry has already been studied and validated in a work with the collaboration with Ilsa, one of our partners in greenLIFE, with positive results both in the lab and on the field. However, it is not the only area in which this by-product is expendable since the protein material can have a wide range of use”. “A segregation of the water containing chromium, obtaining chromium-free wastewater, would allow having the sewage sludge different destinations than the current one, the landfill. There are several works, unthinkable until a few decades ago, both in literature and in operation that have been done recently not far from us ( Arzignano -ed.), which have opened interesting views regarding sludge from purification plants”.

Roller machines for leather finishing are also becoming more and more popular and, with the latest technical innovations and their use in the new production lines, they lay the finishing chemicals on the hides instead of applying them with the classic spray guns. This allows a reduction of applied chemicals but, above all, a reduction of their emissions that must be treated with suitable blast chillers.

“I believe then essential – concludes the technician – that the district would invest in the creation of a small pilot tannery to have experienced technicians and motivated researchers to study a greener standard for the sector and how to reuse waste materials. The leather is a great example of how a food by-product is enhanced in an extraordinary way and it becomes a product of excellence and base of luxurious and haute couture products. I think we can make a similar path on many, or perhaps all, the by-products that are generated in the tanning process  (animal fat, proteins, hair, flesh, shaving, trimming, etc …)”. “Recognizing in the companies’ fragmentation a limit for the research activities – underlines Mecenero – I believe that the launch f this small pilot tannery, supported by collaborations with universities and research institutions, can boost the Vicenza tanning district towards new fascinating roads.

On the latest aspect, Giancarlo Lovato, the R&D Manager of Corichem, believes that an effective research can also be carried out by the SMEs. “The leather district is strong because there are many small businesses, highly specialized in a single phase of the tanning process: liming, colour, retanning, a global corporation may not find interesting small research activities affecting just one stage of the tannery process”. About conducting research with universities rather than private centres, Lovato recognizes first a competence often extremely high, unavailable within companies and private centres as well, but then the limit of slowness, when compared to the tight timeline of an entrepreneur who needs to “run” quick to remain competitive in an aggressive market. “The high focus on research and innovation will involve strong changes at the level of organizations as well”, says Lovato, “because they will be forced more and more to do the utmost to retain their highly knowledgeable people, and they will base their success, or even their very existence, on specialized technical knowledge”. “Talents and knowledge will be the key for a business to thrive”, recognizes Lovato.

The future of research for Giancarlo Lovato? First of all the biopolymers, of renewable derivation, rather than the development of new molecules that has become very complex with the Reach. Their application in the tanning sector must be accompanied by an LCA analysis to define not only the technical characteristics but also the environmental impact.

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