Tannery, an example of circular economyDomenico Castiello illustrates the activities of PO.TE.CO, the scientific pole of the Tuscan leather district
The Italian tanning industry is a world leader not only in terms of value of the leathers produced but also thanks to the effort made towards the sustainability of its products. In the forefront, representing the most advanced point of the sector’s research certainly is Domenico Castiello, at the head of the Polo Tecnologico Conciario (Technological Tannery Pole)-Po.Te.Co. of Santa Croce sull’Arno. We asked him a series of questions which, besides framing the activity of the centre, aim to outline the challenges awaiting the sector in the near future.
Mr Castiello, who are the main users of your laboratories and which are the most requested tests?
“The scientific activities and tests carried out in our laboratories give support to all the operators of the leather industry with daily experimentation which contributes to the evolution of the sector itself. In particular, the main physical-chemical resistance tests, colour solidity tests and stability and compatibility tests of the materials are carried out in the laboratories for the physical-mechanical tests. We have developed specific procedures to check the properties and resistance of the materials in order to ascertain that they comply with the rules and the specifications imposed by brands. Among other things, we assist businesses in terms of revision of the technical specifications, of analysis on specific items, of process, product and research optimization for the development of more eco-compatible matrixes. We also assist brands with developing technical specifications trying to optimize the quality and performance requirements by combining them with the manufacturing times for leather and artifacts. There is also a strong demand for the analysis of damaged artifacts for which we perform tests that aim to identify the origin of the defects in order to prevent and fix them. In collaboration with “CTC China” we are able to guarantee the China-GB international standards on leather, fabrics and finished products. In the “water analysis” laboratory we carry out an analytical activity of checks on the main physical and chemical parameters of primary waters and waste water. The chemical analysis laboratory performs chemical-ecotossicological tests on leather and fabrics, and on the chemical reagents commonly used in the tanning process as natural and synthetic tanning agents, colouring agents, fatliquors and so on”.
What are the most important research activities that you are carrying out?
“Among the projects we are working on I’d like to mention “Lightan” and “ACQUA 360”: both involve the local industrial treatment plant and therefore give “macro answers” that are useful to the whole district, both on how to enhance the production processes by diminishing the environmental impact and on the re-use of civil wastewaters in the leather production process. In collaboration with the University of Pisa, we registered two patents, which are the result of an intense research activity aimed at improving the sustainability of the entire leather production cycle through an innovative integration between the tanning process and strategic industrial sectors of the chemical industry. Specifically, the aim of the two patents is the invention of innovative formulations for thermoplastic materials and the formulation of new biodegradable agents obtainable from waste biomasses or renewable vegetable raw materials”.
Sustainability is a word that we hear more and more often but that is often used improperly. In this light, what is the central question for the sector according to your experience?
“In order to assess the sustainability of a product it is necessary to know the whole history of that product: where and how it was made, following what kind of industrial processes, complying with what kind of procedures, using what kind of resources, in what way etc… From this perspective the leather sector expresses more and more sensitivity towards all the issues connected with sustainability, which, in particular in the Tuscan leather district, is supported by comprehensive policies that involve businesses and industrial plants, thus already realizing a tangible example of concrete commitment in this field, according to standards that we want not only to preserve but also enhance further: the two projects we have just talked about are an example of that”.
The specifications imposed on businesses have been a very important subject the last few years. Often, impossible values are required, and sometimes tanneries lament the discrepancy between the results of tests carried out by different laboratories. Is it possible to contemplate the possibility of arriving at a uniformity of analytical methods?
“I think we can achieve that through an increasingly incisive dialogue and confrontation between the operators of the industry’s operators, from the producers to the final customers, through those who carry out the research activity, identifying precise parameters that can be universally recognized and accepted, thus avoiding the risk of those impossible values required in some specifications and which penalize one’s commitment. Uniformity, in terms of analytical methods and precise reference parameters, could also resolve the problem of the discrepancy between the results of tests performed by different laboratories”.
What do you think are the major challenges in the tanning sector in the near future?
“The challenge is that of being confirmed as a sector capable of expressing high enterprise standards by combining business requirements with those of the community: it is an onerous commitment, also in economic terms, and as far as investments are concerned, but which, in the medium to long run, will be rewarded by the market, as the experience of Santa Croce sull’Arno’s leather district, where a potentially impact-making industry has managed to get to express a tangible example of circular economy, which more and more companies take as a model of excellence”.
WHAT IS PO.TE.CO.
The Polo Tecnologico Conciario of Santa Croce sull’Arno is a scientific centre supporting the leather industry. Made up of the leather and shoe entrepreneurships and by the public bodies that represent the Leather District and the Province of Pisa, it has been active in the fields of research, training, innovation and technological dissemination since 2002. Thanks to its experience in the sector, Poteco assists companies operating in the “leather”sector by putting its human and technological resources at their disposal. The structure has an experimental state-of-the-art tannery, with all the equipment necessary for wet processing and finishing operations; an experimental conveyor, a facility where the processing and assembly of footwear can be replicated; laboratories for monitoring performance and ecotoxicology of the finished product and analytical laboratories to assess sewage and industrial waste.
Over the years Poteco has realized extremely important innovative processes, on one hand for the recovery of processing waste and on the other also for the creation of purification systems and the enhancement of sludge. Poteco is also at the forefront of research in collaboration with the Universities.
In 2016 Poteco became a partner of the technological centre CTC based in Lyon, putting a network of experts, inspectors, technological platforms and laboratories located in Asia (Cina, India and Vietnam…), Europe and Africa at the clients’ disposal, with the aim of offering a high-quality service for the leather and fashion sectors.