Name: Gereon Wahle
Profession: Design Academy Eindhoven Alumni + Studio Gereon Wahl
Website: Website: www.gereonwahle.co
“For greener pastures” is a circular leather recycling infrastructure. Built upon the creation of a mechanical and material process that allows for the production of a waste leather composite.
A highly functional material made from a reversible biological binder and the waste of businesses within the leather industry. Allowing for their participation in a circular leather economy whilst gaining complete control over their products’ life cycles and retaining value from their waste.
After being approached by TLC to conduct research on the use of leather offcuts, I was surprised to find that the only significant commercial leather recycling process being utilised within the leather market today is Bonded Leather. A process that is focused on the use of limited leather waste streams that only encompass a fraction of the existing issue. All of the leather used is sourced from pre-consumer cut-off waste, mixed with Rubber Latex. A process that creates single use recycled leather sheet that gets used for products until, they too, end up as waste.
Recycling material for a single application is better than having the material end up in a landfill the first time, but it is not the most effective way. The extension of the life of waste leather could be accomplished in a way that allows the recycled material to be returned and reprocessed multiple times within a circular recycling network.
The technology and infrastructure for such operations within the leather industry are non- existent, as current solutions for leather recycling are developed on a ‘one-time- use’ basis.
After around a year of research, building machines, and testing materials, I developed a process that utilises a combination of hide glue and shredded leather waste. Both by-products of the leather industry allow for the production of a circular leather composite material that can be used to make a variety of products. Possible to press into any shape, items that have reached the end of their life can be broken down, steamed, and re-pressed into new items. Effectively closing the recycling loop, with no loss of material and a limited use of energy.
This, accompanied by an efficient material break-down process that is established with the aim of achieving complete circularity, and a service framework that allows companies to take absolute advantage of their leather. Would allow for the recycling of both pre and post consumer waste along the entirety of the materials life cycle – again and again.
To get an understanding of why this project might be valuable to the industry, it is good to outline the issue that we face when dealing with leather. The life cycle of leather – from a raw material to its use in products, is one that encounters waste every step of the way. It begins in the tannery where it is possible that up to 70% of the wet weight of the original hides can be discarded.
During the manufacturing of products, finished leather hides are cut for footwear, furniture and accessories, while trimmings are left unused. As these products are distributed for retail – unsold stock, returned and damaged items are also considered waste. The products that do make it to the consumer are used for a limited time, as fast moving trends and consumer culture prevent the optimal use of leather and its durability. At this stage the leather that ends up being thrown away has been combined with a myriad of other materials, and is much more difficult to recycle.
I believe that companies who create any commodity product must be able to exercise complete control over its life cycle, without shifting the responsibility for end of life management of products to the consumer. The absence of an effective model for a circular leather economy is glaring, one which could help companies take ownership over their waste. Including being able to tackle waste along all steps of the linear life cycle of leather and turning it into a circular one. Encompassing the use of tannery waste, production waste, retailing/distribution waste and post consumer waste.
Current methods for the use of leather waste are limited in reach, as a short sighted approach is favoured over establishing a more robust recycling system within the industry. Although leather waste is being recycled with success, the waste streams used rely solely on pre-consumer cut offs. While the composites created are once again discarded at the end of their life. Only delaying the effects of the waste on the environment to some degree.
Not only do existing processes delay the inevitable impact, they are also a way for companies to ‘green wash’ their products. Just because a brand purchases a Bonded Leather composite product does not mean that they are taking ownership over their products’ life cycle. Existing linear waste infrastructure dictates that those products inevitably end up in a landfill regardless.
However, with a proper circular framework in place, companies would be able to take control of their waste, use of products, and recycling processes. Doing so in a transparent way that does not trick consumers.
To provide a better insight into why my approach to leather recycling is innovative – it helps to establish the main existing methods and their shortcomings.
Whilst my leather composite is not meant as a replacement for Bonded Leather, it does serve as a more competent additive to leather recycling as a whole. Highlighting the need for new and effective circular approaches to be introduced to a stagnant industry. Specifically addressing the qualities one would look for in the development of such a composite.
Whilst a variety of binders and methods of using recycled leather have been investigated, none have become as industrially viable or prevalent as Natural Rubber Latex. Used as a binder within recycled leather sheet goods known as Bonded Leather, companies such as “RECYCLEATHER” have been able to create a composite material used in fashion, accessories and footwear industries.
Natural Rubber Latex is the most used rubber substance in the world, as 99% of the world’s rubber is extracted from agriculturally farmed Hevea Brasiliensis. This species of rubber tree is only able to thrive in very specific climates, taking a minimum of seven years to grow before being ready for harvest.
Thailand and Indonesia farm and supply around 60% of the world’s natural rubber. Due to the huge demand of rubber products world wide, 25% by Europe alone, these plantations are notorious for their deforestation, bad labour conditions and questionable material quality. This makes it difficult for companies operating from overseas to monitor the actors along this extensive supply chain. Assuring that they are receiving a fair and sustainably sourced product that they can eventually import.
Not only this, but Natural Rubber Latex is an industry that is established on a monoculture. Similar to banana plants, the rubber tree was cloned from a select amount of seeds. Planted closely together without interspersing natural diversity, the Hevea Brasiliensis is susceptible to leaf blight that could wipe out whole plantations in the future. Although efforts for sustainable rubber farming have sprung up, they only make up a tiny percentage of the existing market.
Social problems within the production and use of Natural Rubber Latex are evident, but it is important to also mention its material properties. Although it is an organic product, this fact is often misconstrued by companies to mean that rubber products are sustainable and biodegradable.
The reality is that the majority of hard wearing rubber products are the result of a vulcanization process where the rubber is heated and combined with chemicals like sulphur. This makes the rubber more elastic, resilient, strong, viscous, hard and weather resistant.
Further chemicals such as ammonia are needed to process the raw sap into usable latex. This process further pollutes local environments as wastewater is often discharged without proper treatment. It also makes it notoriously hard to recycle, as this material does not melt and therefore cannot be broken down and remoulded. Instead rubber products are often shredded, and downcycled into pressed pellet products such as gym flooring.
This is also the case when combining finely ground waste leather fibres with Latex. As the resulting composite product is impossible to recycle or break back down into its original materials. Making Bonded Leather a short sighted solution that briefly extends the life of these raw materials, before also ending up in a landfill. Which it inevitably does, as companies that use this material do not take control over their products’ end of life cycle and rely on consumers to dispose of their products.
Existing methods within the industry have been established with a short sighted view of the issue of leather recycling, relying on a temporary fix akin to slapping a bandaid on a bullet wound.
The creation of current leather composites still follows a linear waste trend. Relying on existing infrastructure, this – take, make, use, waste – approach to recycling leads composite materials down the same path as its non-recycled counterparts.
Instead, radical and forward thinking steps need to be taken that change the way we view leather recycling. Not only as a temporary use of our waste, but a circular recycling infrastructure that optimises leather waste and keeps the material in the loop. Providing companies with the tools and know-how to participate in a circular leather economy.
I think the hard truth is that leather is a by-product of the meat and dairy industry, and as long as people eat meat and drink milk – it’s here to stay.
In fact, it’s a growing industry, built upon an old system. A system that relies on a linear waste infrastructure that is practically set in stone. Take, make, use – and then throw it in the landfill or the incinerator.
In order to make a change, we need radical new processes that allow us to rethink and overhaul our existing waste infrastructure and change it for the better – inside out – permanently.
My hope is that this project is one of many that will enact this change in a practical and sensible way.
I am currently at a point where I have proven, in a small way, that the leather waste composite I have created could be viable within the industry. I have managed to create a circular material on a micro scale. This however does not mean that this process is guaranteed to succeed on a macro level.
My next steps therefore, are to scale up my process to create larger machines, and larger samples. Finding a range of new applications, from architectural elements, to interior design and fashion. With the aim to make a use-case for the leather composite to be utilised within varying industries by real companies.
In order to accomplish this, I will also need to conduct a professional Life Cycle Analysis, as well as material quality tests. Assessing the impact of the material, and its mechanical properties. Which will allow me to better understand the process and composite itself, to enable me to further improve it.