IULTCS meet in Florence

21 March 2005

I have just returned from the IULTCS Congress which took place in the beautiful city of Florence in early March. Opening ceremonies are usually occasions for local dignitaries to get up and tell the audience how wonderful the domestic industry is and how important a role the sector plays in the local area. So it was somewhat disconcerting when the various regional and local government officials accused the Italian leather industry of lagging behind in research and lacking innovation. Indeed, according to one, 'most innovation now originates in northern Europe, especially Scandinavia, debunking the myth that technical innovation is linked to such factors as being centrally located.' To my mind this was a totally unwarranted attack. Italy is still the leader when it comes to fabulous and unusual leathers. This is not to say that France and Spain cannot compete at this level, but in terms of tanneries which are fashion leaders Italy has by far the greatest number. On the technological front, they also have the greatest number of tanning machinery manufacturers who, despite the hard times being experienced by the European leather industry generally, still manage to develop new machines each year for Tanning Tech in the autumn. I listened to many presentations and spoke with a number of industry people during the week and felt that the underlying theme was that the Italian industry, reeling from the effects of low cost competition, feels it needs some help. They believe that the sector's chemical requirements represent such a small proportion of the overall chemicals industry production that they are overlooked on the research front in their own country. And this is only part of the problem. Italy set ground breaking standards with their common effluent treatment plant which serves more than 400 companies as well as the municipalities of Santa Croce sull'Arno, Fucecchio and Castelfranco di Sotto. It has been constantly upgraded over the years since the seventies and now occupies a huge area. Also since 2001 it has converted over to being a totally biological treatment plant. When this occurred the cost of reagents dropped 60% and sludge production reduced by 40%. Air quality has also been improved and all byproducts are being treated in an attempt to reduce the environmental impact. Despite their huge success, they are still under increasing attack from European legislation which continues to make more and more wholly unreasonable demands on the leather industry. Franco Donati, president of the the host organisers Associazione Italiana dei Chimice del Cuoio (AICC), told delegates that research can be the first thing to suffer when times are hard but reducing environmental impact is essential for environmental sustainability. Increasingly rigid regulations have forced many companies to relocate, mostly eastwards, and this process which is still going on, weakens the domestic position. In the past cheap labour attracted many to Italy, now the position has been reversed. Despite this, he is optimistic about the future and feels that improvements can still be found. Twenty years ago, when they began their work, many felt that European regulations would force tanneries to close.This did not happen and a great deal of investment was made and problems dealt with. Now it is not just water purification that is required but re-use of the water as well. They have until 2013 to find the answer to the question of recycling. In the past solid waste went to landfill, fertilisers and animal feed. Since BSE, they have been seeking to reuse all byproducts and close the circle.

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