Today we talk about circular economy as if it is a great novelty, but in actual fact the tanning sector has been reusing waste from the production process as fertilizers in agriculture for more than twenty years, as well as using a food by-product, like leather, as a raw material. However, there is obviously still a long way to go to optimise the virtuous cycle of tanning production and the scientific and technological path behind this goal is a work in progress that deserves maximum attention.

The theme for the 46th Annual Conference of the Italian Association of Leather Chemists (AICC) was “Leather, icon of luxury: the art of raising the prestige of waste materials with sustainability” held on 8 June 2018, at the Teatro della Compagnia in Castelfranco di Sotto (Pisa). During the conference, chemists and tanners chose to investigate the theme of the reuse of tannery waste through the testimony of researchers and industrial companies who for many years have been involved in the transformation of animal by-products from the tanning cycle, as well as the recycling of wastewater, plants for the recovery of chrome, and the disposal and reuse of tanned protein sludge in agriculture. Experts from Consorzio SGS, Sicit 2000, Cuoiodepur, Depuratore Aquarno, Poteco and the Italian Leather Research Institute took turns at the microphone.

In the light of recent regulations concerning by-products applied in the tanning industry, a research study was presented at the AICC conference highlighting some ideas for the future, as well as concrete industrial experiences relating to the latest technological innovations for waste and scrap treatment, confirming once again the sector’s great commitment to complete sustainability of the tanning production chain. But of course not all the steps forward are free of pitfalls. “We must always remember that in terms of sustainability everything is relative and that an innovation in one phase can turn into an environmental burden for the next one. With this in mind, we must increase our collaboration with universities, research centres and associations close to us because only through synergies and sharing of results can we make real progress,” noted the moderator Franca Nuti, coordinator of the AICC Tuscan Area. The AICC president, Ernesto Pisoni, also called for openness and sharing of results: “The sector must open up to a broader discussion because real progress comes from greater transversality which will benefit us all.”

The Italian Leather Research Institute of Naples presented two important works at the conference. “Characterisation of solid residues by wet-white metal/free tanning” by Biagio Naviglio and “Photocatalytic Purification of wastewater by photocatalysts” by Daniela Caracciolo.

Professor Tiberio Daddi of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna of Pisa talked about the regulatory aspects and environmental benefits of circular economy, and after pointing out how the current regulations are often perceived by the sector as a barrier to development, he reported the results of a study that showed the great benefits brought to the Tuscan tanning district by the presence of local consortia for the recovery of waste and chrome. The conference ended with a speech by Primiano De Rosa-Giglio of UNIC on the theme of “Leather and Luxury: who supports sustainability”.