The outlook for the circular economy in the world of leatherPaolo Gurisatti, industrial economist and advisor of the Italian Leather Research INstitute of Naples, outlines the prospects of the world yet to be build.

Jul 27, 2018
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Paolo Gurisatti
Paolo Gurisatti

The frontiers of an effective circular economy are still a long way off as achieving them requires chemical skills that have not been unexplored up to now. If chemistry has always set itself the task of “composing” basic elements into new synthetic molecules, today it is required to perform the opposite process, arriving at the maximum possible decomposition/breaking up of organic and non-organic materials in order to avoid their degradation into poor quality “waste”. The selective decomposition of materials is the frontier on which to focus in order to build a true circular economy and be able to manage the end of life of products in a sustainable way.
This is the vision of Paolo Gurisatti, industrial economist and SSIP advisor, who studied in detail how the tanning world can be an integral part of a circular economy.

The objective is to transform waste into secondary raw materials, into new molecules that no longer have anything to do with the starting material, thanks to the intervention of new bio-chemical and bio-technological processes.

What is the main challenge facing tanneries?
“To understand if it is possible to increase separate collection of wastewater in the different tanning phases, without everything being conveyed in a single tank ready for the purifier. Whether it is possible, through an early treatment of wastewater, to intercept and eliminate undesirable chemical substances, and thus obtain a lighter wastewater (so complicated technologies do not have to be used in order to make it harmless), and at the same time to improve the recycling systems, especially in the beamhouse phase, so that the protein part of the waste can be recovered and used”.

An example?
“The recovery of hair, which was once separated from the rest of the waste and that represents 7-8% of the weight of a hide. For economic reasons, it was decided to use the destructive lime-pit techniques for hair, without taking advantage of their protein and keratin content. Now we are trying to understand if it is possible to recover and reuse it for even more noble purposes than those related to agriculture (fertilisers). Acque del Chiampo is doing it and also at SSIP we are studying this topic in collaboration with the CNR”.

Therefore, the pressure from brands and the public opinion is having a positive effect?
“It certainly is. The sector is getting back on track and is beginning to review its destructive processes. A path that, in 10 years’ time, could not only make relations with customers easier and save a few euros on purification, but could also allow us to gain something from the virtuous dynamics of recycling”.

Does that mean we cannot expect immediate results?
“A lot still needs to be done, because the new materials and the same production technologies are still in the prototype phase. Today there is no market for new molecules recovered and therefore no commercial investments exist to use them”.

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