Leather is an extremely versatile and useful material that is used for so many things these days, but is it biodegradable or recyclable?
We make leather and leather products from animal skin, which is technically a natural material that should be biodegradable. However, we need to keep in mind that leather is processed and treated in a certain way before it gets into the hands of consumers.
Leather is biodegradable, but the rate at which it does so depends on how it's been treated. Chrome-tanned leather is the most harmful and toxic. Vegetable-tanned leather is much more sustainable. However, the majority of leather is fully recyclable regardless of the treatment process.
We have been using leather as a material for thousands of years for a variety of different purposes and it has not lost its touch over the years. Leather is a major part of the fashion industry and it is used in everything from high-end, luxury clothing to budget brands. In addition, we use it for furniture, tools, and other types of equipment. Over the years our use of leather has become more dynamic with not only the areas that we apply this material but also how we manufacture it. We use natural materials when producing leather as it is made from animal skins, which would make most people assume that it is completely biodegradable. However, you may be surprised to know that leather actually has a more significant environmental impact than you would think. Although we use natural raw materials to make leather, the process that we utilize to manufacture it makes it less sustainable. To help you understand this further, we are going to take a closer look at leather to see if it is biodegradable and recyclable.
After extensively researching the environmental impact of leather, I have been able to gather enough information to determine whether this material is biodegradable and recyclable. My research has taught me that leather’s biodegradability is measured based on how the material was manufactured.
Biodegradability of Leather
The leather industry will often boast that leather is completely biodegradable and that it is made with sustainable resources - with little to no environmental impact. It is worth noting straight away that leather is technically a biodegradable material - so long as it is was made using real leathers. It is derived from a natural material that will decompose over time.
With that being said, the rate at which leather biodegrades can vary greatly. This material is natural but it still goes through a tanning process that greatly affects its biodegradability and sustainability as a resource. We are finding out that leather can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. This is a tough material and although it is not nearly as destructive as plastic and other unsustainable products, it has still been manufactured to last a long time.
At the end of the day, if we are gauging how long something takes to biodegrade, everything will biodegrade eventually. The key feature that we look for in biodegradability when considering environmental impact is how long does it take for the item, product, or material to decompose and break down. Although leather is a natural material it does not biodegrade in the span of days, weeks, or months the way other natural goods like vegetables, fruits, and meat products do.
Leather will take a minimum of 50 years to biodegrade. However, this is in optimum conditions and with completely natural leather, which is not the case with most leather products that we find in our society. The actual figure that we are finding is that leather that has been industrially processed will take centuries to fully biodegrade. If you consider that plastic takes roughly 500 years to biodegrade, it is worth evaluating the sustainability of leather as a whole. Let’s take a closer look at the different types of leather that we use and their biodegradation process.
Since the mid-1800s, we have been processing leather in a certain way to make it a more durable material that is weather and water-resistant. There are a couple of different ways that we go about achieving this but the most popular approach is called chrome tanning.
Chrome tanning involves adding chemicals into the leather manufacturing process. This is meant to add to the material’s lifespan using chromium. These days, about 75% of all of the leather made in the world is done so with chrome tanning. Chrome tanning is not the most sustainable by any means, as it requires toxic chemicals for the dying process of the leather.
Huge vats are filled containing this chemical which is when the leather materials are then added into the liquid. The leather is left to soak inside of the chemical for a certain amount of time, which is when the chrome tanning occurs. This adds to the characteristics that manufacturers want their leather to have before it gets sold onto the market.
By doing this, the chrome tanned leather will last for a considerably longer time period than pure natural leather. Although this is good for consumers who want to get as many years as possible out of their leather products, it does not do much good for its rate of biodegradability. Chrome tanned leather will likely take hundreds of years to biodegrade - as opposed to the 50 which standard natural leather would.
In addition, some of the most harmful effects of leather manufacturing occur from chrome-tanned leather, as the chemicals that are used to dye and soak the material in are often not treated or disposed of properly. Underdeveloped countries that are involved in leather manufacturing will dump the chrome-tanned chemicals into freshwater sources and through other methods which are not ecologically sound.
The most common alternative to chrome-tanned leather is vegetable-tanned. This is a much more natural process as it does not involve the use of harmful chemicals, which means that it is a much more sustainable approach for manufacturing leather.
However, vegetable-tanned leather does aim to make leather as durable and long-lasting as possible. Whereas chrome-tanned leather is designed to make leather much more water and weather-resistant, vegetable-tanned leather is made to be tough.
When it comes to biodegradability, vegetable-tanned leather can also take 100s of years to fully break down. Ultimately, this is biodegradable and it is much better for the environment than chrome-tanned leather but it will take a long time to decompose.
Leather can take a long time to biodegrade fully. Although it is a natural material that will go through the biodegradation process eventually, the best way to approach old or used leather products is to recycle them.
You can recycle leather even once it has been worn out, as it can still be used for something (within reason). There are a lot of different ways that leather can be broken down in this state - even if it has been battered over the years. With that being said, the process of recycling very old leather can be quite challenging, which is why so many organizations try to avoid it.
However, leather that is in decent condition, can be recycled much easier. This can be seen in the form of clothing and upholstery primarily but any leather product will do. The great thing about leather that is in this kind of condition is that it can be recycled even if it is just in scraps of material.
There are various leather recycling plants that specialize in repurposing this fabric or breaking it down completely to turn it back into raw material. A lot of sustainable fashion companies often prefer to buy recycled leather, as it leaves a smaller environmental impact on the planet. The current wave of sustainable living and environmental consciousness is encouraging a lot of consumers to opt for recycled leather products instead of new ones for this very reason.
In addition, leather can be recycled without actually needing to be broken down and processed. There are plenty of ways that you can make your used leather products useful again - especially if it is clothing that has been kept in good condition. One of the best ways to recycle your leather clothing is to donate it to charity. Whether it is a leather jacket or shoes, there are plenty of organizations that specialize in getting your used clothing items to people who can truly use them.
We are also finding that used and recycled leather is very popular among people who like to make crafts. There is a big demand for leather within this kind of work and buying used leather products that would otherwise be in landfills is the best way to utilize this material further.
About THE AUTHOR
James Parker has a Masters degree in Sustainability with a focus on land management, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. He also has experience managing sustainability projects, and is passionate about conservation and sustainability.Read More About James Parker