The global market for leather has been increasing at an alarming rate. Take the automotive interior leather industry for instance: it was estimated at $28.32 billion in 2017, and is expected to grow to $30.16 billion within the next 7 years.
While the use of leather used in car interior, office chairs, and home decor contribute to the economy of many countries, it also has adverse effects on the environment. More specifically, animal leather has been associated with severe environmental degradation.
This article explains how the modern leather industry is affecting the environment and possible solutions to this issue.
Where does Leather Come From?
The kind of leather used in a particular area mainly depends on what is locally available. In the U.S., the primary source is cattle skin. Others include goat, deer, lamb, buffalo, yak and even ostrich.
Recently, kangaroo leather has also gained popularity due to its strong and lightweight profile. Similarly, some companies use leather derived from snakes, alligators and crocodiles skins. And in Thailand, firms have ventured into stingray leather goods.
Effects of Animal Leather
The greatest problem with this material is not how it’s derived but rather the production process involved.
Tanning is the procedure through which the animal skins and hides are treated with chemicals so as to produce high-quality leather. It follows a series of steps that range from curing to soaking, liming, de-liming and pickling.
This mechanism of treating animal hides to convert it to leather is what pollutes the environment.
There are two main techniques of tanning: chrome and vegetable tanning. In the first approach, chromium compounds are applied to the raw hides in a bathing process. The tanned hides are then squeezed, pressed and made ready for finishing.
Apart from chromium, other chemicals used during chrome tanning are sodium chlorate, sulfuric acid, limestone and limestone soda ash.
Due to the repetitive procedure of soaking raw hides and pressing them, this tanning method results in large amounts of wastewater. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) estimates that one chrome-tanning plant wastes almost 15,000 gallons of water. To make matters worse, this wastewater is mixed up with loads of chemicals.
Additionally, some tanneries release tons of solid waste that contains chromium, hide scraps and hair. According to PETA, the solid waste from one facility amounts to 2,200 gallons.
The solid and liquid wastes from tanneries make their way into the environment through air, soil, water and food.
The most common pathways are air and water. The chromium solid wastes can leach into soil and water bodies. If the nearby residents use the contaminated water for cooking or drinking, they run the risk of becoming ill.
Similarly, workers in tanning facilities are at a risk of inhaling dust and fumes from the chemical products. They may also get exposed to these toxins through dermal contact if they handle any of the equipment incorrectly.
According to the National Institute of Environmental Sciences, exposure to hexavalent chromium (one of the forms in which chromium exists) makes an individual susceptible to nasal and sinus cancers, eye irritation as well as kidney and liver damage. If the exposure happens through dermal contact, one faces the risk of getting skin conditions like rashes, sores and ulcers.
What Can Be Done?
One of the techniques recommended by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization is recycling.
As explained in their report of Chrome Management in the Tanyard, this would require tanning facilities to use the same chromium system for pre-tanning and subsequent post-tanning stages. This would cut back chromium levels in wastewater by up to 21%.
Robert Cranston, a leather expert, is one of the individuals who has already embraced the recycling idea. He and his colleagues have come up with ways of reusing chrome waste by filtering it then re-introducing it to the plant. They also recycle water by purifying then using it for irrigation.
Another solution is to use animal leather substitutes like vegan/synthetic/faux and bonded leather. According to a 2017 report compiled by the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, synthetic leather or faux leather only causes ⅓ of the environmental impact caused by animal leather.
Alternatively, leather makers can use bonded leather as well. This is a blend of tannery leather scraps (which would otherwise end up in landfills) and a polyurethane coating. The fact that companies reuse the leather leftover during the production of real leather products minimizes environmental impact. This is because it eliminates the need to produce leather from scratch, which would lead to water wastage.
With the majority of leather producing companies, the tannery waste gets dumped untreated in water bodies. This wastewater contains a slew of chemicals, which are harmful to aquatic life and humans.
To reduce the impact on the environment, these firms should implement recycling and reusing techniques.
Whenever possible, they can also use animal leather substitutes like synthetic or bonded leather. The processes involved in producing synthetic and bonded leather are more eco-friendly. Consumers should also try to embrace these types of leather over real leather whenever possible.
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