Reducing the environmental footprint of the leather industry

An EU-financed project has used innovative technology to create new green chemicals that have the potential to greatly reduce the environmental footprint of the leather-making process

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An EU-financed project involving public and private organisations from Spain and Italy has developed new biopolymers for use in the leather-making process which have a smaller environmental footprint than the products that are currently being used in tanning processes.

The primary goal of the LIFE BIOPOL project was to identify a new class of biopolymers as an innovative and ecological alternative to the traditional petrochemical-based products used in the water-and chemical-intensive leather industry. The new biopolymers devised by LIFE BIOPOL perform at least as well as petrochemical agents and could result in leather products with an environmental footprint that is significantly smaller than leather goods made using traditional processes.

The LIFE BIOPOL project, which is co-financed by the EU via the LIFE 2014-2020 programme, involved the participation of five public and private Italian and Spanish stakeholders: CODYECO, the coordinator of the project and a leather chemical producer; the DERCOSA and INPELSA tanneries; the University Ca’ Foscari of Venice; and ILSA, a biotechnology company based in Italy’s Veneto region. ILSA specialises in plant-nutrition products and focuses on the research and development of green chemistry solutions by deploying cutting-edge technologies for the purpose of molecule extraction.

ILSA laboratories spent three years developing and analysing nearly 50 prototypes, including hydrolysates and fluid extracts, related to five raw materials that were chosen at the beginning of the project. From these 50 prototypes, following detailed analysis and assessments of economic feasibility, six prototypes were developed by ILSA’s research centre on a pre-industrial scale.

These were then used by CODYECO to make batches of eco-compatible biopolymers for the leather-making process. CODYECO has developed an industrial prototype plant in the town of Santa Croce sull’Arno in the Tuscany area, which is specifically designed to produce these new kinds of green chemicals.

The biopolymers were subsequently tested by the Spanish tanneries DERCOSA and INPELSA. The tanneries found the performance of the new green polymers to be equal and, quite often, better quality than that of petrochemical agents.

In addition to evaluating the industrial feasibility of the biopolymers, ILSA has identified the parameters that will be used to gather data for the ongoing life cycle assessment of the new biopolymers. Clizia Franceschi, the head of R&D at ILSA, said that the results of the LIFE BIOPOL project were an example of how ILSA biotechnologies can foster green progress in a circular economy perspective, in several sectors. Franceschi said: “The ILSA research activity carried out in recent years in the biotechnological field has allowed us to acquire unique knowledge applicable to different natural substances from which to obtain useful products for various sectors. This is in perfect harmony with the circular economy principles.”

The new biopolymers are expected to have a lower environmental footprint than conventional processes. The new green chemicals are observed to achieve a reduction of between 70-90% of hazardous substances compared to the chemicals conventionally used in the leather-making process. The process is also intended to reduce the water used in the leather-making process by 20% and cut the presence of pollutants in effluent. Overall, the biopolymers could result in leather products with an environmental footprint that is 70-80% lower than that made using traditional processes.

The innovations made possible by LIFE BIOPOL have the potential to significantly minimise the environmental impact of the world of leather processing.

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