Between bamboo fabric, commercial hemp, and organically produced versions of more familiar and commonly available textiles, there are already substantial green alternatives to most of the cloth fabrics that American consumers wear and use on a regular basis. It is a promising situation for environmentalists and for the future of sustainable industry. But lest we forget, there are also broad categories of clothing and textile-based products that are not covered by those alternatives. These include any item that requires a particularly durable or waterproof material, for which leather or synthetic materials would ordinarily be used. However, the work of researchers at the University of Delaware promises to open these areas also to new, green alternatives.
The tanning industry that currently fills this need is detrimental to the environment and human health. First and foremost, it produces a great deal of waste. Only about half of the weight of cow hide used in the tanning process becomes usable leather; the other half is disposed of as a waste product. Some 60,000 metric tons of shavings from treated cattle hide are taken to landfill annually. In addition to the actual raw material, the tanning process involves some chemical waste, as well.
Traditionally, the industry has widely utilized chromium VI compounds, which are known carcinogens and have been linked to cancers and other health problems in workers and persons accidentally exposed to the substances. In one case, the Centers for Disease Control found that the community surrounding one Kentucky tannery had an incidence of leukemia five times the national average. Since the 1990s and amidst environmental regulations, many US tanneries have shifted away from use of chromium VI in favor of the more benign chromium III. However, as recently as 2009, a lawsuit was initiated against Prime Tanning Corporation in St. Joseph Missouri, which continued to purchase chromium VI in order to derive chromium III from it on site. The suit alleges that area residents developed brain tumors as a result of exposure to chromium used in farm fertilizers.
The situation with Prime Tanning seems to be fairly unique in the United States, but not because other leather producers have been markedly more responsible. Rather, instead of discounting use of chromium six and otherwise accommodating domestic environmental regulations, many tanning operations have moved overseas. Indeed, leather processing is no longer common in the United States, and most of the leather that’s worn or used by Americans is imported. The US does however export the rawhide for processing before re-importing some of it as finished leather. Consequently, the material now produces a far deeper carbon footprint at the same time that its production skirts regulations and contributes to pollution and potential public health crises in vulnerable foreign countries.
Doctors Richard Wool and Huantian Cao, both of the University of Delaware, are on the verge of providing the global market with a leather alternative and a catchall solution to each of these problems associated with the tanning industry. Their new material, Eco-Leather, was developed as a collaboration between the university’s chemical engineering and fashion departments and utilizes a variety of natural fibers along with resins derived from vegetable oils such as soybean and linseed to create durable and waterproof textiles with a range of potential properties.
Dr. Wool, whose research interests focus on materials from renewable resources, is in charge of material development, while Dr. Cao handles product development from his perspective working on the application of sustainable textiles to the fashion industry. The Eco-Leather project thus represents a unique opportunity for collaboration across distinct academic disciplines. Dr. Wool happily emphasizes that his work with Dr. Cao demonstrates a “beautiful, nuanced overlap” between two departments that are “really worlds apart, ordinarily.”
Taking the aspects of material development and product development together, the Eco-Leather project represents a commercial product that is both as exceptionally sustainable and eminently practical. According to Dr. Wool, the real spark for this project was the discovery of how to make the material breathable. Once that was done, it became possible for every distinct variety of Eco-Leather to be utilized for clothing or similar applications.
The material is created by compatible bio resins and substrate fibers. The property of the resulting Eco-Leather is controlled in part by the choice of fiber, but mostly by varying the mixture of oils that make up the resin. The oil can be tailored in order to derive the desired properties from the chosen material, giving the producer fairly complete control over the production of an unlimited variety of practical textiles.
As a result, different versions of Eco-Leather can range from very soft to very hard texture, which allows it not only to replace leather in every capacity, but also to reach into applications that leather would not have been applied to. For instance, Eco-Leather can make up an entire shoe, sole and all; it can be made into a raincoat or any would-be-leather outerwear; but it might also be utilized in the sustainable manufacture of sails or camping tents.
Equally unlike leather, recent trials on the substance have shown it to be paintable, thanks in part to acrylic groups on the bio resin. Thus there is also an aesthetic dimension to the greater value of Eco-Leather as compared with traditional leather. For the acutely fashion conscious, this might be a factor in choosing the particular materials involved in the Eco-Leather that they utilize. As a raw textile, viscose from bamboo has a visual and tactile appeal in addition to its tremendous environmental advantages. As a base for Eco-Leather, it may be just the same. “I love bamboo,” says Dr. Wool. “It has that beautiful shine.”
Of course, the most compelling reasons to wear and promote bamboo are its capacities for contributing to sustainability and compensating for rising concentrations of greenhouse gases. And these factors fit beautifully with the potential of the Eco-Leather project. So long as the substrate textiles are natural and sustainably grown, their application to this new material is a boon to the environment, whatever their particular source. But in the case of bamboo in particular, the source material is especially low-maintenance and easily replenished, while providing exceptional carbon dioxide respiration. Add to this the fact that the sources of the oil resin have the same effect, sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, and the potential significance of Eco-Leather in the fight against global warming is made abundantly clear.
What’s more, the available sources of both fabric and resin speak to the likelihood of low-impact, localizable manufacturing infrastructure for this new, uniquely useful material. Dr. Cao points out that soybean oil, one resin source, is essentially a byproduct of other industries that utilize the soybean crop, and that the overall process of creating Eco-Leather is not very complicated. Consequently, the opportunity exists to create domestic jobs that eliminate the current need for economically and environmentally costly imports and replace them with a material that has a high degree of commercial viability.
Toward that end, the researchers are in the midst of starting up a business, Eco-Leather Corporation, which will produce, market, and distribute the latest commercial good that promises to help foster a society that effectively balances environmental consciousness and quality of life.
“We’ve been besieged by venture capitalists,” says Dr. Wool. That’s no surprise, considering what such a versatile and sustainable product has to offer both to the consumer market and the world at large. A source for the bio resins is already in place, and Eco-Leather Corporation is expecting term sheets by the end of the summer, according to Dr. Wool, who adds, “If we don’t have a whole new industry up and running by then, I will be very disappointed.”