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Eco-innovations from the EU help leather industries in Egypt and Tunisia to close the circle

Adopting eco-innovations is both good for the business and the environment.
Published on May 30, 2018

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Leather is a major issue for North-Africa.  In Tunisia, for instance, the leather industry, together with affiliated sectors such as the leather shoe production, make up to 4.5 % of the country’s export.  But apart from being an important job creator and income source, the tanning and leather sector also play a major role in the consumption of natural resources and fabrication of environmental effluences.  While the environmental impact of footwear and leather goods production is limited to the production of leather waste, tanneries produce - during and at the end of their industrial process - large quantities of liquid effluents, solid wastes (salts from the conservation stage, fat and hairs from fleshing and splitting of the different layers of skins) and emissions (sulphides). With regard to effluents generated by tanneries, a major problem arise in treatment units that often have insufficient capacity and cannot eliminate all the polluting substances (chromium, COD, chlorides) which are used during the conservation and quenching bath steps.

UNIDO together with local partners work in the EU funded SwitchMed program to improve the environmental performance of industries in the Southern Mediterranean region. This aspect of SwitchMed is mainly covered in the MED TEST II project, where 130 industries demonstrate the benefits of adopting a Resource Efficient and Cleaner Production (RECP). Correspondingly, UNIDO also promote eco-innovative applications from the EU to industries in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia. This activity brings market-ready applications closer to the industries in the four countries with the potential to both achieve improvements that are beneficial for the businesses as well as for the environment. During B2B events organized by UNIDO business partnership that can create new green job opportunities and provide solutions to the wastewater problem faced by tanneries have been promoted.

One of the eco-innovations that got presented during the B2B networking activities in SwitchMed was from INESCOP. Founded in 1971 as a Spanish Centre for Technology and Innovation, INESCOP operates today as a private and non-profit making association focussing on finding alternative solutions for the leather footwear sector. With more than 45 years of experience, INESCOP provides technology services, training and research & development to the leather industry.

Among others, INESCOP has developed patented a new tanning technique (formulation) based on oxazolidine (OXATAN),  which allows, on the one hand, a reduction in the environmental impact, and on the other hand, the production of high-performance leathers with properties that can be suitable for footwear, upholstery and leather goods sectors. This eco-innovative solution consists of a new process for tanning leather with oxazolidine, in combination with synthetic or vegetable tanning agents. The leather obtained by the new process has a good physical strength and adequate smoothness, softness, fullness and flexibility. With this solution not only the environmental impact generated during the leather tanning is minimized, but also at the end of the material’s lifecycle, since leather scraps or used products are more easily recyclable as they are chromium-free.

During several B2B SwitchMed events in the three countries, INESCOP presented not only its environmental friendly tanning technique but also other environmentally-friendly solutions for the leather and footwear sectors, as well as its competence to provide training and research support to the leather and shoemaking industry.

As result of the matchmaking activities in Tunisia, INESCOOP signed a partnership was with the national Centre for Leather and Footwear (CNCC) on training and skills development on how to improve productivity and reduce cost as well as negative environmental effects of chemical usage in tanneries. This training programme will targeted to footwear and leather goods designers and technicians, as well as CNCC engineers, and is expected to start in the first quarter of 2018.

In Egypt initial cooperation steps were undertaken with the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) for two projects. The first one deals with the set-up of a new 50,000 m2 tannery to supply leather for the public services, equipped with state of the art eco-friendly technology developed by INESCOP. This project is intended to result in the creation of about 100 jobs and a production site with a turnover of approx. 4 million euros per year. A framework cooperation is envisaged also for a second project to set-up of a new plant for the production of gelatine out of untanned leather waste from local tanneries.