Though it is a material with lots of toxic by-products, leather is probably not going to go away soon (and probably not soon enough for those who understandably see it from the animal rights perspective). And though you may ask, whatever happened to sacred cows, leather aficionados nevertheless have an eco-friendlier choice now: scientists based near Chennai, India have now developed a more environmentally-friendly and cost-efficient method for tanning leather.Raghava Rao and a group of researchers at the Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) in Adyar have found a simple way to reduce the amount of chemical pollutants involved in tanning by merely reversing the order of tanning and post-tanning steps. By doing so, they were able to cut the amount of chemicals released by 82% and increased energy efficiency by 40%, without observable reduction in quality.
Tanning is an otherwise intensely chemical process which transforms decomposable dead animal skins into leather, but not without discharging serious pollution into water – in India, toxic tanning pollutants end up in the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and pose a great health risk to both aquatic ecosystems and humans.
In all, around 250 chemicals are used in tanning, with chromium sulfate being the most dangerous. Other chemicals include alcohol, coal tar, degreasing agents, dyes, emulsifiers, formaldehyde, formic acid, lead, lime, resin blenders, sodium chloride, sodium sulfate, sulfuric acid, waxes, and zinc. Skins are transferred from vat to vat, soaked and treated and dyed.
Due to lower labour costs and more lax environmental controls, the tanning industry has grown in countries such as China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, capturing 60% of the world’s leather production. As Rao rightly points out, "The significance is tremendous in the context of environmental challenges being faced by the leather industry."
Image: The Hindu