The consumers of most market sectors are actively looking for sustainable products due to the threat of climate change. This has been a trend for the leather and tanning industry too.
Is leather biodegradable and what happens to it at the end? These questions are popping up more and more as people are making a conscious effort to reduce their carbon footprint.
Untanned leather or animal hide is perfectly biodegradable. But things become a bit more complicated once it is cured with tanning agents. Different tanning methods also affect biodegradability. The final product is still biodegradable, but it takes a longer time.
There are a variety of tanning methods, and the leather produced through them breaks into different substances in the end. The effect on the environment can vary depending on these factors.
There are many other factors regarding the biodegradability of leather, which I shall get into shortly.
Is Leather Biodegradable?
Yes, leather is biodegradable. This fact applies to all types of leather and leather-based products produced from animal hides.
The addition of different pigments and other visual enhancing agents interferes with the process a bit, but the ultimate result stays the same.
Humans have been using leather for as long as our written history goes back. Yet not many leather-based artifacts survived the corrosion of time.
However, older tanning methods relied on natural substances, so the entire process was somewhat safe.
Modern methods of tanning add more unsustainable elements into the cycle of leather products.
For example, the leather industry relies on chromium-based tanning agents these days. This agent does not pose much of a threat to the workers, but that is another matter entirely for the environment.
Chromium-based tanning agents produce a tremendous amount of toxic sludge that we, frankly, have no way of handling. The leather cured with these materials also takes a long time to biodegrade, even in a favorable environment.
How Long Does It Take For Leather To Biodegrade?
Leather’s biodegradability is a lengthy process. It is very inefficient for sustainability. Regular cured leather takes around 40 to 50 years to decompose in a favorable environment. Leather needs some very specific environmental conditions to decompose completely.
You can, in theory, expose leather to harsh sunlight to make it degrade faster, but you’d still be looking at 30 years at least. Most tanned leather also needs some specific bacterial presence to break down into different substances.
Keeping leather in an area that prevents rot can extend its life cycle exponentially. Some leather artifacts can last thousands of years if you preserve them well enough. The situation is even worse with faux or synthetic leather.
Historically, people have been trying to extend the life cycle of leather-based products. They have also seen tremendous success, a matter of great sadness for the planet. It is only recently that some manufacturers have started looking for more sustainable solutions.
There have been some small successes on that front. Some manufacturers produce leather that is more biodegradable and durable.
But this practice is very costly, and not many manufacturers are implementing it.
How to Dispose of Leather?
Disposing of even biodegradable leather is bad for the environment. It already has its hands full of plastic and nuclear waste.
You could try incineration and using it as a burnable fuel, but that would be pretty much the worst way to dispose of it. Your best bet is to try to compost it. The process would probably be lengthy, even with strong decomposing agents.
Sadly, the use of unnatural pigments and other enhancement agents resists decomposition. They also hinder the process of the leather itself.
You would also need to remove the metal bits from the leather. The best way to dispose of leather is still to recycle it.
Is Leather Recyclable?
Yes, leather is recyclable. But it is not something you can melt and reshape like glass. I believe the correct term for the process is “repurposing.” Leather is exceptionally versatile, and under the right conditions, it will last a very long time.
Leather scraps are great for making new leather products. But the leather industry refuses to use it on a larger scale. That has a lot to do with the quality of the product. Products made with recycled scraps take a hit in quality.
Making it from scraps is also more costly for a leather company. The whole process is very inefficient.
To make matters worse, a lot of the recycling facilities do not even accept leather. That can make it hard for a lot of people to dispose of their leather waste. As for the facilities that do accept leather, you can probably find them through a bit of research.
Is Faux Leather Biodegradable?
The widely used faux leather needs plastic as its base. Many other artificial leather variants also require Phthalate for their leather-like quality. Both these materials are terrible for biodegrading. So, no, traditional faux leather is not biodegradable.
Most faux leather also creates a tremendous amount of toxic waste in the manufacturing process. The toxins are harmful to both humans and animals alike.
PVC is one of the primary base materials for conventional faux leather. The byproduct of producing PVC is dioxin. Dioxin is highly toxic, and it remains in the environment for a very long time.
This synthetic leather is also the reason why many recycling facilities reject leather products. Telling them apart from real leather is tough. That can also ruin the whole setup. You can’t even put faux leather in landfills because the stuff won’t decompose at all.
Some people argue that conventional faux leather is better than real leather for the environment. Most of their reasoning boils down to how it is not animal cruelty.
This type of marketing is exceedingly misleading. The synthetic leathers are just as, if not worse, than regular leather.
Biodegradable Alternatives To Leather
The leather industry is not all grim. There are very eco-friendly alternate leather variants in research and being manufactured all the time. Some of these may cost a lot. That is mostly because they are still in the research and development stage.
But there are already a few usable types.
My first choice of alt-leather is Muskin. Muskin is not leather, and it isn’t a chemically produced substance either.
This stuff is made by making mushrooms grow into the shape of leather. The most commonly used mushroom for this is Phellinus ellipsoideus.
The Phellinus Ellipsoideus is a huge mushroom that grows on the sides of large tree trunks. You probably even saw this type of fungi on a hike, if you hiked in China.
Muskin leather is probably the greatest thing since sliced bread since it is 100% biodegradable.
Muskin has a softer texture than traditional leather, which makes it a better choice for footwear. It almost feels like a soft cork to the touch.
The growth rate of these mushrooms is also very fast. They can grow up to 1 inch per week.
Pinatex sounds like a fancy fashion company, but it is not. It is a type of leather made using pineapple leaves. The pineapple leaves are very supple and have a high fiber content. This gives it enough durability to substitute leather.
The curing process requires a few chemical pigments. That is to help with the durability of the finished product.
That is why Pinatex is only 90% biodegradable. However, it is still better than animal hide because it does not take too long to decompose.
There is also a never-ending supply of base material in all parts of the world. It has the potential to become mainstream once the technology matures further. However, the durability of this leather is still in need of some adjustments.
AppleSkin is another soft fabric with a leathery texture. This fruit-based leather is made from a byproduct of the fruit juice industry.
The process of making this leather involves taking the dried apple waste from the food industry. Then the waste turns into powder and is combined with polyurethane. The material also receives a layer of cotton and polyester.
The use of polyester and polyurethane may seem odd as a biodegradable alternative, but it leaves very little carbon footprint in the long run. The fabric is recyclable, and it does not produce any toxic waste. The whole process is a lot cleaner than traditional leather.
Related posts you must read
Is leather biodegradable? The answer is yes. The sustainability of this type of biodegradability is terrible, though. The leather industry produces enough toxic waste to outweigh the sustainability of that. You probably won’t live long enough to see your accessories decompose even if you throw them in a landfill.
It is also hard to recycle leather as a general consumer. You would need to spend a lot of time finding the right outlets to dispose of your leather products. It is high time we start looking for alternatives to the traditional leather industry. Thanks a lot for reading till the end.