Throwing our raw material away

Considering that for every 1000Kg of raw material we process in the tannery more than half gets thrown away as solid or liquid waste it is perhaps surprising that Cotance estimate this to cost only 5% of the total cost of production. Even so low margins in the industry means that many tanners around the world, especially in China, cheat by either not having or choosing not to operate an effluent treatment plant.

We (Dr Mark Wilkinson and I) are in the University of Sichuan discussing this with a group of about fifty fourth year leather students. The workshop is in English and the students seem quite capable of grasping what is being said and contributing. From formaldehyde to soaking enzymes language appeared no barrier, and they are just as well informed when we speak of world populations and global warming.

Sichuan is a large province in south west China bordering on Tibet. It is a big area for tanning and a major zone for pigskins. Increasingly the shoe industry is viewing the west as a better location as labour costs rise so Chengdu, the city we are in, now describes itself as the “ladies shoe capital” of the world and no one seems ready to contradict this. Nevertheless Chengdu is better known for the presence of companies like Intel, Microsoft and Lenovo (who make the former IBM computers): and for its Pandas.

Sichuan is one of the prestigious top 100 Universities in China and the leather school is amongst the best in the country. We are looking at closer collaboration with the possibilities of Sichuan students coming to Northampton to enter the final year B.Sc. It looks likely we will see the first students in the 2008-9 session. Tony Covington has been a Visiting Professor at Sichuan for some years and is a member of their academic committee. The experimental tannery is small and as far as we have seen largely based on the wet end with little chance to learn any finishing or machine work.

A high level of research is undertaken as well with about 50 research students but this has achieved limited recognition outside China. We would like to find a way to become involved and help upgrade this with joint work but all will depend on funding mechanisms.

There is no doubt that the University has many friends in Sichuan and we are really hoping to develop these strongly as we enter or centenary celebration year.

Economies of scale

Announcements made at the trade show in Shanghai appear to match our thoughts on what is happening in China right now. The government has made it clear it wants fewer tanneries and bigger ones, with the scale to afford and run proper environmental treatment plants. It also wants them to be away from residential areas, which is difficult for some in South East China where urbanisation is overwhelming the countryside at the speed of an express train.

Certainly China will always be immense in leather but it does mean a bright future for places like Vietnam, India, Pakistan and Brazil if they choose to take it. It also means now could be the moment for Africa. Why have 17% of the world’s raw material and yet only 2% of its industry? Could the next 25 years start to belong to Africa?

Michael Redwood

Chengdu, 12 September 2007

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