Interesting Advances in Leather Technology That May Surprise You
The leather industry is probably bigger than you think. According to Grandview Research, the global leather goods market size was valued at $394.12 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow at an annual rate of 5.9% between now and 2028. The most popular products are shoes, clothing, and upholstery.
As the leather market grows, leather manufacturers around the world are adopting new technologies to improve leather-making efficiency and create innovative products.
But the rise in demand for sustainable and ethical products by consumers has also led to the leather industry’s search for and adoption of technology designed to protect the environment and make leather production more sustainable.
We took a look at what’s going on around the world in new leather technology. Here are some of the most fascinating.
The leather industry is one of the most water-intensive industries in the world.
Large amounts of water are used for the diffusion of chemical products and the extraction of undesirable materials from the hides, which places stress on local water resources.
The leather industry’s water consumption is estimated at 400 billion liters annually. As a result, there has been a recent focus on reducing the amount of water used during the tanning process worldwide.
ECCO Leather, a company in the Netherlands that operates 4 tanneries and 2 beamhouses, has developed DriTan, a leather tanning process that uses the moisture that is already present in the hides to reduce the amount of water used in leather production.
Based on preserving the leather’s natural collagen without the use of added water, this new technology was developed in ECCO’s in-house research laboratory.
DriTan saves 20 liters of water per hide, enough to keep more than 9,000 people supplied with water for a year. Using less water also results in lower energy costs and creates a tanning process that requires less expenditure on chemicals.
Approximately 80 – 90% of leather is tanned with the use of chromium, a heavy metal tanning agent which stabilizes the collagen in hides to prevent putrefaction.
Only 60 – 70% of the chrome used in the tanning process is absorbed by the hides; the rest is discharged as effluent, making its way into air, soil, food, and water. It has well-known adverse side effects on both humans and the environment when it leaches into the aquifer and is released into bodies of water.
There is currently a major push among tanneries to decrease the quantity of chromium discharged into the effluent through the recovery and recycling of chromium from the wastewater produced in tanning. The following methods are being utilized worldwide in an effort to keep chromium from entering water supplies:
Chemical precipitation: This method is widely used for heavy metal removal from inorganic wastewater. By adjusting the pH to basic conditions using an alkali, the dissolved metal ions are converted into an insoluble solid.
Electrocoagulation: This broad-spectrum treatment technology removes heavy metals, emulsified oils, bacteria, and other contaminants from water.
Reverse osmosis: This process removes impurities from contaminated water through the use of pressure, forcing the contaminated solution through membranes.
Ion exchange: This purification process using polymeric ion-exchange resin exchanges ions between two electrolytes.
Dissolved air flotation: This water treatment process clarifies wastewaters by removing suspended matter such as oil or solids by dissolving air in the water or wastewater under pressure and then releasing the air at atmospheric pressure in a flotation tank basin.
Membrane filtration: Membrane filtration relies on a liquid being forced through a filter membrane with a high surface to remove particles from water.
Eliminating Cow Excretions from the Environment
It is well-known that cow urine, excrement, and belching contaminate soil and waterways, and contribute significantly to the acidification of soil and greenhouse gas emissions. There are 1.4 billion cows living on earth, with each one producing 250 to 500 liters of methane daily.
Methane produced by cows is shorter-lived than carbon dioxide, but 28 times more potent in warming the earth’s atmosphere. So it’s not surprising that cattle are the number one agricultural source of greenhouse gases worldwide, responsible for creating one-fifth of the greenhouse gases worldwide.
Here are a few ingenious solutions that have been developed around the world:
- In Argentina, the government has developed cow backpacks that trap the methane produced by cows and turn it into green energy.
- Scientists in the United States have developed a system that collects methane by inserting a tube into cows’ digestive tracts and funneling it into an inflatable bag secured to their backs.
- Because what cows eat affects how much methane they produce, scientists at UC Davis have come up with a diet that makes cows less gassy. Other scientists have been working on the genetic modification of cows so they have fewer bacteria in their stomachs and therefore produce less methane.
- When cow urine leaches into the soil, microbes convert it into nitrous oxide, which is the third most significant greenhouse gas after methane and carbon dioxide. The Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany has come up with a solution: potty training cows. It uses the “MooLoo approach” to teach calves to urinate in a specific area in the barn, where the urine can be collected and treated.
Modern Meadow, a New Jersey-based biotechnology company, raised over $40 million to produce leather without the use of animals through biofabrication.
Zoa, its animal-free bio leather, is grown to mimic the quality of leather from different species, including cow, alligator, and ostrich. It looks and performs like leather, but it is produced in the company’s laboratory through a process of DNA editing that grows collagen from yeast.
The 8-week process begins by taking skin cells from a cow to which they add a gene-edited yeast that consumes sugar and spits out collagen. Once the collagen is harvested, the liquid can be poured into any shape or pattern as it turns from a liquid into a solid, fibrous material.
ZOA is available in different colors. It yields zero residual waste, reduces petrochemical content by 50% compared to synthetics, and has an 80% lower carbon footprint than leather. It is abrasion-resistant, water-resistant, and retains flexibility for optimal performance over time and use.
Transforming Cow Poop Into Electricity
Castelbosco Farms in the province of Piacenza, Italy uses cow manure to generate electricity.
The dung is collected into “stool digesters,” huge vats in which bacteria transform the organic matter into methane. The methane is then burned to produce electricity. The farm produces 3 megawatts an hour, enough to illuminate a village with 4,000 inhabitants. The water used to cool the engines is used to heat the farm, stables, and digesters.
Every day on the farm, its 1500 dairy cows produce 50,000 kilograms of milk and 150,000 kilos of dung.
Some of the leftover excrement is used to make a fertilizer called Merdame, while some of it is made into bricks called Merdacotta. But more intriguing of all is the farm’s museum, Museo Della Merda, which produces and sells vases, coffee mugs, and plates that are made of baked manure and clay.
Bright Future for the Leather Industry
We hope you are inspired by the 21st-century advances in leather technology, and that you were as amused reading it as we were writing it. The bottom line is the tanning community worldwide is going to great lengths to make sure the industry evolves to leave the smallest footprint possible on our shared environment.