Roberto Mariano Mecenero has been president of the Leather Chemists Association for a little over than a year. He has been working in the tanning sector since 1976 and is a member of Conceria Dani in Arzignano, where he deals with research and purchases of chemical products. In this interview, AICC’s president stresses the importance of continuing to study systems to reduce the environmental impact of the tanning industry and to stand together to counter attacks against the sector.

You are a great expert of the chemical tanning industry, what are the most important challenges that the sector is facing today?

In my opinion, there are two major challenges that the tanning sector is facing today: one comes from the inside and one from the outside. We can directly be involved and effective towards the one coming from the inside that we are facing, that is, being able to reduce the environmental impact of the tanning production. There are various improvement areas on which new systems and technologies are being developed. First of all, it is necessary to focus and intervene on the liming phase, among the most impacting of the process: in this field we are experimenting pretty successfully reduced sulphide liming, enzymatic liming, oxidative liming, which in place of sulphide use hydrogen peroxide, etc.; on some of these issues we find ourselves in an already acquired situation while still in advanced progress on others, but I hope we almost reached our goal.
Then we have to reduce the quantity of sodium chloride and nitrogen that we deliver to the purifier. There is a lot of important research going on, also in collaboration with the producers of chemical auxiliaries and with the support of research centres and universities. The market itself asks us for an extraordinary commitment in this direction: today, for example, there are customers who call to account the product’s LCA, i.e. the amount of CO2 emissions equivalent for each square metre of leather produced. The pressures on tanneries coming from the world of the big names are very strong with stimulating, sometimes even absurd, requests but which in any case require us to accept the challenge and continue to improve all-round day by day”.

Metal free and chrome free leathers are becoming increasingly popular. Do they represent a solution to the environmental problem?
“Only in part, I would say. If we intend to focus on the end of life of the leather product, we can say yes. If we intend to evaluate the production process in its entirety, we can also say no and not consider chromium as a problem, as is sometimes mistakenly believed: chromium is one of the most present minerals in nature, indispensable for living beings, for humans in the first place. In the industrial chrome tanning process, this solution offers many advantages, not only in terms of product quality but also from the point of view of a currently tested and reliable purification process. We recall that some purifiers have been put in difficulty with the passage from the classic chrome production to the new white tanning, not so much for tannings, but rather for the retanning of this way tanned leathers. In this field too, a lot has still to be done to optimise these new alternative processes that the market is increasingly demanding”. 

Can we hope for the arrival of truly valid new tanning agents, as alternatives to chromium and aldehydes?
“Of course, there is a lot of research going on. In recent times, several new tanning agents have been developed, also relating to organic material waste resulting from the agri-food industry. Some are very promising and in an advanced testing phase at various tanneries. In this respect I expect big news in the near future”.

How much does media pressure impact on the tanning business?
“And here we get to the second challenge we mentioned earlier, the one that comes from the outside. In this period, media pressure has a huge impact on our sector; undoubtedly, all the attacks coming from social media networks are very heavy and mislead the consumer, who in many cases thinks that animals are slaughtered in order to have leather available and that synthetic materials are more ecological than leather. Against this false information, I hope that campaigns in favour of leather sustainability will start as soon as possible. Unfortunately, not everyone is clear about the concept that the tanning sector, by processing leather, recovers waste/scraps from the food industry that would otherwise end up in landfills. It is clear that meat has always been one of the fundamental elements of human nutrition; and as long as man feeds on meat, we will find ourselves managing skin as waste of the food chain. And there will always be more of it, as the world population increases and the need for meat grows. In China, for example, we went from a per capita consumption of 5 kilos in the 1950s to 60 kilos today, a value that is still far from the 120 kilograms of meat consumed in the United States. But also many other states have increased their meat consumption. The result is that we will have even greater quantities of skin/hide waste/scraps. Will we make large holes to bury them or will we deliver them to tanneries to transform problematic waste into a product of excellence? I believe that if tanneries didn’t exist … you would have to invent them. And in fact this is why they have been already founded in ancient times. However, our duty is to work the skin/hide increasingly better and respecting the environment ever more, using only essential chemicals and applying them in the best possible way. The recovery issue of all the by-products that are created during the processing cycle is also very important: hair, meat scraps, shavings, grease, etc… all substances that can be transformed and enhanced in other economic circuits”.

What repercussions on the sector related to the new Coronavirus outbreak may there be?
“Certainly many and at various levels. Uncertainty about the duration of the emergency on a global level is very worrying and economic repercussions could be really heavy, hopefully not dramatic. We are seeing what is happening these days to the tourism sector… Looking closely at our sector, the long period of production stoppage in China could also cause problems for the supply of basic chemicals and dyes intermediates when existing stocks will run out. In addition, today China is fundamental as an outlet market, especially in the automotive and leather goods sector, but not only; so there is only hope that the health emergency will end as soon as possible, not only in China but also in the rest of the world, Italy in the first place. However, we must be confident, we have endured other terrible shocks in the past and we must not panic”.

What balance do you feel like tracing after this first year as president of the Leather Chemists Association?
“Budgets will be drawn up at the end of the mandate, but this is not my job. I can only say that it seems to me that a good job is being done thanks to the passion and commitment of many of my AICC associate colleagues who invest a lot of their free time to carry on this Association completely free of charge. I am proud of that and I express my heartfelt thanks to them. Today AICC can count on a good team both in terms of single area districts and National Executive Council. Our most important activities concern, as set forth in the By-Laws, the internal dissemination of the tanning culture, but not only. In particular, we are passionate about training and technical-scientific and regulatory updating through meetings, in specific courses and seminars that we organise regularly for our members. Equally important is the work with schools, with the organisation of guided visits to tanneries, to chemical product companies and tannery machines, especially aimed at students of the second year classes of technical institutes, as an orientation for the choice of the following three years. The success of enrollments in the tanning chemistry courses confirms that this activity is very useful for bringing young people closer to our sector, which was far from being the case until recently. For the next year we will have 50 students in Tuscany, 40 in Veneto and 10 in Campania, enrolled in the third year of the Technical Institutes relating to the chemical-tanning specialisation course. And it fills us with satisfaction that many young people address the study of leather tanning to invest their professional future on this. A sector has a future if young people are available and willing to invest in it”.

As AICC’s president what are the messages you feel like sending out to the sector?
“I would like to encourage everyone’s participation and collaboration. I invite those who live in the tanning world to participate in the Leather Chemists Association, because together we are all stronger both towards the market, towards regulatory bodies, and also towards institutions. I also hope that collaboration with all the other associations in the leather and fashion supply chain will be strengthened: we need to reunite the ranks because the attacks we suffer are too strong and violent to support them on our own. For the excellence that we represent and for the economic, work and social function we carry out, we believe that we have shown that we can face the growth of the sector with commitment and seriousness and the many problems we encountered and had to face. If we do this in a corporate way, together with all supply chain associations, everything will be easier, because together we will all be stronger”.

The delivery of scolarships at the Technical Institute C. Cattaneo in S. Miniato (Pisa)
A moment of the award ceremony at the Technical Institute Galilei in Arzignano