Resource-efficient production of leather chemicals

© Dietrich Tegtmeyer

The “ReeL” project uses the residues from leather production to tan new leather. The sustainable innovation is being installed on site in a tannery. This closes the recycling loop from waste to new product where it is needed.

Three partners have joined forces in this project: the research institute Invite, the chemicals company Lanxess and the tannery Heller-Leder. Over the course of the three-year project, the innovative technology will be tested for the leather industry.

The “ReeL” technology not only conserves resources, it is also an innovation in terms of logistics: Leather residues are not processed centrally in large industrial plants, but where they originate. The project partners are constructing a modular pilot plant for operation in a tannery. The main innovation can then be tested in direct proximity to where the leather is produced: obtaining tanning agents from leather residues. The ingredients for the sustainable retanning agents are leather offcuts, trimmings and shavings and plant-based biomass.

The leather waste re-used in the “ReeL” project is mainly produced when the leather is shaved to adjust its thickness. The resulting leather shavings add up to approx. 7,000 metric tonnes in Germany alone. Worldwide, this figure is estimated at 600,000 metric tonnes each year. Alongside these shavings, there are also leather offcuts, estimated at about 1,500 to 2,000 metric tonnes each year in Germany. At present, the bulk of this waste has to be disposed of at significant cost to the tanneries, or is reprocessed and used elsewhere.

The success of “ReeL” promises two things for the tanning industry: It will close product loops and transform waste into retanning agents on site. This conserves resources. Localized production also saves on logistics which improves the innovation’s economic efficiency.