Ecotan is great step forward towards an even more sustainable tanning process, valid for the entire supply chain. Developed by Silvateam, this innovative technology allows for the production of metal-free and glutaraldehyde-free leathers which can be recycled at the end of their life-cycle.
Founded in 1854 near Cuneo, in Piedmont, the Silvateam company is the leading Italian producer of tanning chemicals and one of the top ten worldwide. In addition to the tanning industry, which absorbs about 50% of its production made in its own factories in Italy, Argentina and Peru, its tannins and plant extracts are used in the food sector, in the wine-making industry and in animal nutrition.
We asked Antonio Battaglia, director of Silvateam’s Leather Business Unit, and Eric Poles, project development and sales manager, to help us better understand the features of the Ecotan tanning system and how this project can offer innovative solutions for the entire sector.
“Being specialised in the production of plant extracts, Silvateam has always focused on sustainable products – states Battaglia. Aware of the great demand for recyclable materials coming from the market and fashion brands, we developed an innovative tanning technology to allow both tanners and brands to answer the call”.


RECYCLING-DERIVED FERTILISER

The circularity scheme of Ecotan leathers

The concept of bio-circularity is worth investigating: “We are talking about BIO because the tanning process is based on products of natural origin and CIRCULAR because both leather scraps and – once the necessary supply chain has been created – finished articles can be recycled into a fertiliser. This can be done thanks to an acidic hydrolysis process by our partner Fertilizzanti Certaldo”.
What pushed you in this direction? “The collaboration with American sustainable footwear consultant Pete Lankford, was crucial since he encouraged us to expand leather’s circularity story by exploring the pathway of finding a new use for leather articles. Over the years, Silvateam has done a lot of research on the sustainability of tanning products, measuring the countless advantages offered by leathers tanned with natural tannins. Recently, our researchers have reached a true technological breakthrough, obtaining high quality, performing leather that can transform a waste material into a resource for our planet. In this way, leather can join a perfect circular economy model by returning to the earth as a useful nutrient”.


THE ECOTAN PROCESS

But what is it that allows Ecotan leather to be recyclable? The process developed by the Silvateam laboratories combines tannins of vegetable origin, sustainable and certified PEFC (Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification) with innovative bio-polymers, harmless to humans and the planet, as proven by analyses and tests carried out by third parties. “The resulting tanning process – they explain – leads to higher performance compared to wet white leathers with a wide range of colours and finishes”.
How did these results come about? “In a nutshell – Eric Poles explains – we have revised traditional vegetable tanning and made it more performing by combining natural extracts such as chestnut, quebracho and tara tannin, with synthetic products that improve the final properties of the leather, from tear strength to light and heat fastness, together with softness and touch. “We also like to point out a curiosity – states Battaglia. For the first time we used gallnut tannins to make leather, an extract which is normally used to filter champaign”.


PARTNERS OF THE PROJECT

The fact that this technology can be used to tan leathers of various types and origins is another fundamental advantage of Ecotan. To demonstrate this, Silvateam has involved several tanneries from all over the world in the project (such as Volpi, Valdarno, Vesta, Polaris and La Scarpa in Italy, Haas 1842, Hiriar and Mégisserie Richard in France, the Brazilian giant JBS, Panamericana del Bajío and Wyny in Mexico, Sepiciler in Turkey, amongst others). Tanneries completely different from each other in terms of size, processing and raw material type. “Each partner managed to obtain high quality bio-circular leathers and are now ready to offer Ecotan leather articles to the market”, they explain. Production systems and costs do not seem to be a problem: “One of the winning features of the Ecotan tanning technology is that nothing needs to be changed from an industrial point of view while production costs are comparable with those of a wet-white tanning”, Poles explains. Subsequent tests have also shown that leathers processed with Ecotan are very versatile in terms of use, easily lending themselves to the production of any type of finished article, such as footwear, leather goods, car interiors and furnishing items.

MARKET FEEDBACK
As for market feedback, interest is very high. Silvateam is talking directly to brands to present the features of the project. “The attention towards sustainable materials is huge at the moment – states Battaglia – and there are many fashion houses that are already developing prototypes of footwear and bags with Ecotan tanned leathers that I hope we will soon see in shop windows. A sneaker line is already on the market but at the moment but we are not allowed to reveal the name”.


WELFARE AND COMFORT
Another interesting aspect concerning the applications of this technology in the footwear sector is the ability of these leathers to limit bacterial proliferation. “Scientific studies that we have been carrying out for five years have demonstrated the high hygroscopic and breathable properties of leathers treated with natural tannins. This makes them ideal for producing uppers, linings and insoles as they create an environment inside the shoe capable of maintaining the natural bacterial flora of the foot unaltered, avoiding the proliferation of bacteria responsible for the formation of bad odours and promoting the well-being of our skin”, Battaglia and Poles explain. In this regard, Silvateam is completing the process of registering tannins as natural biocides in accordance with the European Regulation No. 528/2012.


THE PANDEMIC

At last, a question about topical issues could not be missing. How is Silvateam experiencing this pandemic? “Like everyone else, we have suffered from the decline in the leather sector which in 2020 was particularly felt in Europe and Latin America where we recorded a drop of 20%. Asia, where we have grown a lot in recent years, had a normal trend thanks to the rapid recovery in the Chinese market in the second half, and this helped us a lot. In 2021, with the arrival of vaccines, we are confident that we will soon be able to return to normal also in Europe and the United States”, Antonio Battaglia concludes.

Ecotan leathers are safe and sustainable