According to C Patermann, director, EC Environment Programme, DG Research: ‘Fresh water is inevitably linked with soil functioning and soil quality. Abandoned contaminated industrial sites with serious soil pollution have an impact on ground and surface water quality of which the dimension is not yet fully known.

‘A multitude of chemical compounds is on its way from the soil to the water bodies. These chemicals often undergo microbiological degradation processes which results sometimes in the creation of even more toxic or dangerous substances.’

Patermann was addressing a European Commission media briefing in Barcelona on May 2 on European water research: global visions, local actions. This brought together the scientific and technological achievements of three projects: Tannet, Waste Water Cluster and Incore. The briefing was followed by visits to the newly built leather research centre, the Recrisa chromium recovery plant and a wastewater treatment plant, all in the Igualada area.

The leather industry in the European Union consists of around 3,000 tanneries and employs around 50,000 people. While it is located in all European countries with the exception of Luxembourg, it is mainly concentrated in the southern part of Europe.

Tannet, the network for the European leather industry, has accomplished a qualitative change in the European tanning sector with regard to R&D. It has raised the tanners’ awareness of their need for innovation in products and production processes.

Investing in R&D has allowed them to comply with new environmental regulations, save on resources and reduce costs. Moreover, it provides a competitive edge.

By building a European network for the industry, Tannet has been able to recommend a strategy for environmental research and served as a catalyst to increase the participation of tanners in EU projects.

More than ten proposals have been initiated, covering a broad range of environmental needs. Examples are automated ‘water-free retanning, dyeing and fatliquoring’ and a tannery sludge project which tackles chromium-related issues such as chromium recovery and re-use.

Waste water cluster

WWC was created in July 1997 and involves five European research projects. It has improved the understanding of selected groups of industrial pollutants from the industrial and urban sectors which are discharged into the water/soil and water treatment plants (WWTP).

By using complementary sampling and advanced measuring techniques, more information and understanding has emerged on contaminants present in the effluent treatment process.

The WWC supplies measuring devices based on biosensors for monitoring organic pollutants. This provides a valuable tool for industry generally, and the tanning industry in particular.

The expertise and knowledge acquired within WWC is being transferred to the water and chemicals industries and an increase in competitiveness and economic investment within the EU is expected. The results are already being used to help implement the Urban Waste Water Directive and the Water Framework Directive.


Incore provides an effective and sustainable investigation and remedial strategy of groundwater and soil in urban areas, including areas with leather production. The project was based on the integrated investigation of contaminated sites in the Neckar river basin in Stuttgart.

It comprehensively identifies pollutant emissions over an extensive area instead of just concentrating on single hotspots. T Ertel, the coordinator for Incore – Integrated Concept for Groundwater Remediation, said that site investigation and remediation had tended to be site specific but, in general, all site owners declare that contamination has been caused by their neighbours or by a former user of the site. Traditional investigation methods in most cases need a very long time to identify the real polluter and may fail entirely.

Today, legal treatment of soil and groundwater impurities is targeted on the specific situation caused by a specific polluter and measures aim at a fast reduction of environmental damage. The procedure fails in extensive polluted areas with different property owners and complex pollutant situations.

Evaluation of groundwater pollution is based on the sampling of single wells downstream of the polluted site. But underground heterogeneity and spatially varying input of pollutants causes an inhomogeneous pollutant spreading in the groundwater.

Identification of polluters is possible only with high expenditure if different inputs of similar hazardous substances overlap. According to Ertel, remediation of single hotspots only rarely contributes to a sustainable improvement of groundwater quality.

Large amounts of private and public money are being spent on identifying and assessing sources of contamination without being able to reliably quantify their impact on the groundwater quality. Numerous remediation schemes are operated without an economical evaluation of their long-term performance.

Four European cities, Stuttgart, Strasbourg, Linz and Milan, which share the same groundwater problems within their industrialised urban areas, have committed themselves to jointly develop such solutions. Within the different project areas specific local conditions vary and together are able to provide a representative range for Europe.

An innovative cyclic approach is being proposed which starts with the screening of ground-water plumes on the scale of entire industrial areas and ends with the remediation of individual source areas or the containment of plumes.

The major advantage of this approach is that the number of local sites or the size of the area to be considered is reduced, step by step, from one cycle to the next. Consequently, a large potentially contaminated area is screened but only a small area may ultimately be remediated.

The results of the integrated investigation give a rough localisation of suspected source areas. However, more precise identification of the contamination source is needed in order to apply the polluter pays principle.

With the means of cost-effective laboratory and on-site analytical systems, as well as isotopic finger-printing techniques, the backtracking from the control plane along the path line of the plume yields to a precise localisation of the source of contamination. Once the polluter has been identified to a very high degree of probability, it is possible to apply the polluter pays principle. These results also help to avoid law suits which leads to an acceleration of investments and faster administrative procedures.


The Tannet project for concerted action for the European leather industry was presented by the co-ordinator, Dr Stefan Rydin of the Danish Technological Institute and by the secretary general of Cotance, Gustavo Gonzalez-Quijano.

Rydin said that many of the tanning regions (in Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and Greece) are socially and economically completely dependent on the leather industry for their future development, since no other industries are present in those areas.

The small size of the tanneries, their ownership structure and their geographical distribution often constitute a burden for investments in R&D and the introduction of new cleaner technologies and for the development of modern management strategies.

In order to survive it is necessary for European tanneries to be at the forefront of technological development and to establish co-operation within the EU and continue to participate in future R&D activities.

The first Tannet project started in 1998 and several of the research projects carried out by the partners and supported by the EU Environment and Climate Programme have been successful:

Recycling and re-use of chromium from wastewater started in 1993 and finished in 1995. The project developed technologies to reduce the discharge of chromium from the wastewater by three different principles: higher chromium uptake during the tanning process; recirculation and re-use of chromium from tanning and finally replacement of chromium. Several tanneries today use the findings from this project.

Gasification of leather waste and sludge commenced in 1994 and ended in 1996. During this project, trials on the use of gasification for the treatment of leather waste and sludge were carried out for the first time. These EU-supported trials were successful and after the project finished the development of this process has continued in order to scale it up to full size. As a result, the first gasification plant for a tannery was inaugurated last year in Norway and several other countries, including Italy and Spain, have shown an interest.

An EU-supported R&D project on the use of membrane filtration in the leather industry started in 1998. The project finished in 2000 and showed that in many cases membrane filtration can be a sustainable solution in order to re-use both water and process chemicals for the leather industry. The process has recently been taken up on a full scale in the UK.

Networking has proved to be an efficient way of involving all stakeholders in the process of defining research priorities and for the promotion of technical innovation. Small and medium scale companies simply do not have the resources to carry out their own research so a collective approach is essential.

‘Sustainable water use is high on the Cotance agenda’, said Gustavo Gonzalez-Quijano. ‘Poor management practices in the tanning sector have led to a significant degradation over time in water quality.

‘The tanning industry is now taking a lead in order to position itself, with the help of the European Research Directorate, as a proactive player in the management and use of fresh water. The challenges of meeting these growing needs are daunting, but it is important to stress that the situation is not hopeless.

‘We are working towards pollution prevention, especially when building new facilities, which is obviously the most cost effective way of dealing with water management, rather than cleaning up polluted water after production.

The aim of Cotance is to move to zero discharge or closed loop systems (ie Restorm) and to find ways to reduce or eliminate pollution before it contacts water. This means moving towards cleaner production concepts promoted by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Cotance recently signed the International Declaration on Cleaner Production, which is a voluntary but public statement of commitment to the strategy and practice of cleaner production.

Gonzalez concluded by saying that: ‘the tanning industry has already made considerable efforts in the environmental field, especially in water resource management but achievement of sustainable industrial development will require further significant improvements.

Quoting the Cotance president, Herman Hulshof, who said: ‘Companies that do not reflect their best vision and values in their actions will not survive in the marketplace over the long term’, Gonzalez said that ‘tackling unsustainable trends and leading towards the vision that sustainable development offers, requires serious action on the tanning side, committed and farsighted leadership and a new approach to responsibility.’

The Danish Technological Institute has been the co-ordinator for Tannet. Cotance, the Confederation of National Associations of Tanners and Dressers of the European Community, has been working closely with the institute in order to secure industrial involvement and awareness through concerted action. Tannet co-ordinator Dr Rydin is moving to Rovesta Environment on September 1 and will take the project with him.