With its innovative technologies and sustainable product solutions, LANXESS is supporting future-oriented leather production.
Owners of expensive cars swear by the properties of leather, as do fashion and furniture designers. Made from animal hides, it is considered to be the ultimate recycled product. For more than 100 years, the leather industry has been transforming a by-product from the meat and dairy industry into a durable and versatile material. But as rooted in tradition as the leather industry is, it also has to react to the challenges of the times. Against the backdrop of a growing global population, increasing urbanization, dwindling resources and climate change, it takes more these days than just innovative technology to protect the environment and people – it also takes sustainable process chemicals.
A VISIONARY PLATFORM
With the goal of shaping global leather production to meet these demands, LANXESS has launched the Sustainable Leather Management initiative, a platform for sustainable and environmentally compatible processes and products. In doing so, the Group is supporting tanners in producing leather in a manner that complies with the legal provisions and the individual quality standards of various brands, from the automotive industry to apparel makers. “Our goal is measurable advantages in terms of lower emissions, the neutralization of health risks or a reduced carbon footprint,” says Dietrich Tegtmeyer, Vice President of Industry Relations and Sustainable Leather Management, in the Leather business unit. “And we are doing so to benefit energy conservation while protecting the climate and the environment, but without forgetting our customers’ profitability.”
TURNING WASTE INTO A COMMODITY
One example of the intensive research efforts that LANXESS is investing in the development of sustainable solutions for leather production is the Levotan X-Biomer technology. This advancement is a new class of retanning agents, which have traditionally been used in leather production to influence factors such as softness, color, structure or elasticity. What makes the product line so special is that the agents not only reduce wastewater contamination, but are also biologically degradable and derived from renewable resources. Tegtmeyer: “To do so, we use a by-product of the tanning process: shavings. First, we recycle them so that we can reuse them as a material to make chemicals for retanning.” The production of leather involves roughly 20 steps, from unhairing and tanning hides to the optical and functional finishing of the leather. The entire process involves some 50 to 60 leather chemicals, including chromium, which tanners use to produce wet blue, a semi-finished product that can be stored and transported. These pre-tanned hides are the basis for all leather. Because the hides need to be uniformly thick, they are formed. After all, the skin of a cow can, for example, be thicker on the animal’s back than on its abdomen. The shavings are the by-product of this process. Around 600,000 metric tons of these shavings are produced every year. If they are not reused, they end up in a landfill.
This process comes to life at LANXESS’ location in Leverkusen, Germany, where the specialty chemicals company operates its own leather pilot plant, as well as a research and development lab, where some 50 employees develop and test new methods and products. Every step in the leather production process is simulated at the on-site tannery. In one corner, tanning drums spin like washing machines. The forming machine shapes the wet blue to a uniform thickness, while shavings drop onto the floor. Stands covered in leather samples in various colors and with different structures line the aisles. At the in-house lab, employees test samples of the leather to determine their physical properties, such as resistance to scratches, flexibility and elasticity. For all these steps, LANXESS provides a wide range of system solutions for leather processing, from innovative process chemicals, as well as mineral and synthetic tanning agents, to preservatives and high-quality finishing products for all types of leather. Formulas are developed and tested at the Leverkusen pilot plant. Thanks to these intensive research efforts, today LANXESS is one of the leading manufacturers of leather chemicals in the world and is even the global market leader when it comes to tanning agents. “The combination of innovative production solutions and our applied technology expertise allows us to offer our customers innovative and sustainable technologies,” says Thomas Brackemeyer, Head of the Leather business unit’s Business Line Organic Leather Chemicals. “The tried-and-tested chemicals are excellent from a technical perspective. But it is sometimes challenging to continue optimizing them in terms of sustainability, which is why we often need to fundamentally rethink things and take a different path. We are focused on pursuing this approach here.”
THE LEATHER INDUSTRY IS CHANGING
Think ahead, take a new approach, adapt: As a driving force behind innovation, LANXESS is already working today to transform leather production from a traditional trade into a recycling industry that combines technology and sustainability. A process that will become increasingly apparent in the next 10 to 15 years, Brackemeyer says. He is looking toward the future: “The industry is changing. But it’s like a huge ocean liner trying to change its course: It moves slowly. We are giving it a push along its way.”
article courtesy of Lanxess web magazine