There is a great deal of valuable research currently being undertaken in the leather industry and it is of critical importance that it be allowed to continue. As the tanning industry in the developing world shrinks, there is less money being made available to fund necessary research into areas of interest or concern.

Chemicals companies continue to make considerable investments in time and money in their pursuit of providing the tanner with what he needs to produce the best leather while at the same time remaining competitive and within legislative rulings. However, there is still a need for research which carries less commercially vested interest.

At the biennial IULTCS Congress in Cancun in Mexico at the end of May, two papers gave delegates some insight into the European Commission funded RESTORM project. This far-reaching research programme is particularly worthwhile in that it brings together the combined efforts of 18 partners and three subcontracted partners from eight European countries.

An investment of $8.5 million is being made into 104 man-years of research which is divided up into six work packages. Each unit is being managed by one organisation which specialises in the relevant area. These are then broken down into three phases: short, medium and long-term.

The aim is to conduct research into resource management to assist the tanning industry to change their production methods in order to ensure a sustainable manufacturing industry for the future. To remain competitive the European industry must move away from producing waste to a regime whereby traditional waste products are either reused, recycled or converted into useful byproducts.

In the short term, research will be used to close the loop in existing processes so that water and chemicals can be removed and reused. Current solid waste streams will be used as substrates for the production of new high added-value materials.

Although closing the loop will have a great impact on leather production, the chemical process itself still needs to be addressed. The medium term aim is to move from chemical processing to biochemical processing in the beamhouse. This will require the development of novel enzymes to replace current chemicals through a screening of micro-organisms.

It is envisaged that in twenty years’ time leathermaking may have radically changed, taking raw materials, extracting the collagen and making new materials. The long term objective, therefore, is to investigate the potential of new collagen-based products, specifically for biomedical applications.

The idea of combining research efforts must be commended and should be encouraged as widely as possible. The leather industry comes in for a lot of criticism on the environmental front but in the developed world the tanning industry has gone to great lengths to clean up its act, to reuse and recycle.

Forums such as IULTCS are invaluable in that not only do delegates get to hear a whole host of research papers but they also get a chance to ask questions, make suggestions and talk amongst themselves. For me, the most interesting part of all is to hear the differences of opinion that occur between some of the greatest scientific brains in the industry.

I was taught that science provided facts which could be tested under laboratory conditions and the results could be repeated time after time. Not so. There are still a number of areas of disagreement which may never be reconciled such as those surrounding the presence of hexavalent chromium in leather and false positives when testing for forbidden substances.

While Martin Ricker and myself were privileged to attend the Cancun event, our technical editor, Graham Lampard went to America for the ALCA conference. It was his first visit for three years and he was very impressed with the programme. There was much of interest through the presentation of tannery based processing ideas along with an excellent range of technical papers.

Shelagh Davy