India steps up to make leather production more sustainable

The city of Kanpur, India, at the borders of the Ganges, hosts a lively tannery industry, employing 50,000 people directly and 250,000 indirectly. Leather processing, however, is one of the most polluting industries in the world and it consumes huge amounts of water. Solidaridad is working in this region to make the leather industry more sustainable and to make food production safer and healthier.

Leather is one of the most polluting industries in the world

Leather production thrives but harms people and planet

Leather is the fifth largest exported Indian commodity with a value of 6.5 billion US dollars a year. It’s hard to miss the abundant leather production in Kanpur. Everywhere along the roadsides you see piles of blue-coloured hides. And even if you didn’t see it, you would probably smell the liberal application of acrid chemicals used to process the hides. The industry consists of big companies, but also of small businesses run at the courtyards behind simple houses on the roadside. One thing they have in common is their rancid smell expanding into surrounding communities and their significant contribution to water pollution.

Local leaders setting the sustainable example

One of the medium-scale industries in the Kanpur region is Kings International. They are among the front runners in sustainable leather production. Taj Alam, managing director  of Kings International and vice chairperson of the Uttar Pradesh Leather Industry Association, proudly explained all the measures he has taken to make his production more sustainable. The results are impressive. With Solidaridad, the Indian CSIR Central Leather Research Institute and Stahl technologies, they are in the process of developing very revolutionary processes to recycle the limewater from the leather production.

This could really become a new standard in the industry. With the success of electro-oxidation treatment, we would be able to re-circulate almost 100% of the water we use. We aim for a zero-liquid waste process. - Taj Alam,  Uttar Pradesh Leather Industry Association.

Science underpins sustainable production

The electro-oxidation is just one of the innovative new technologies introduced in Solidaridad’s leather programme in Asia. In consortium with Stahl, PUM, CLRI, and industry associations of Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam, Solidaridad works on reducing the pollution load and water consumption of tanneries by improving and introducing eco-friendly technologies within 100 tanning units across Kanpur and Unnao. These technologies include:

  1. Pickle (salt) free tanning
  2. Low sulphide enzyme-based unhairing
  3. Electro-oxidation-based zero waste discharge
  4. Phyco-remediation pilot for waste water in the downstream villages of Kanpur and Unnao to improve the quality of the waste water
  5. Occupational health and safety interventions with a focus on aspects like preventive steps for H2S Gas, installation of proper first aid facilities, proper use of personal protective equipment, etc.  

Solidaridad is encouraging tanneries to adopt these proven methods. The biggest leather company in the region is already convinced and is testing these new techniques for their production. Given the size of their production, even small steps are resulting in significant environmental gain.

Small improvements over time can have a big impact

More impressive, but on a much smaller scale, is the work of Ghulam Sabir of Gujarat Tanners: a very small tannery which he runs with around 10 employees. But even though his operation is very small, he strives for the highest environmental standards. He is proud to show his results in wastewater management before and after treatment.

The difference is hard to miss. Since a few months, Sabir has managed with the assistance of Solidaridad to save significant litres of water per year by adaptations in his recycling process. Asked about what motivates him to make all these extra investments, he pointed to the fabric of his shirt: “If I buy a shirt, I want the best quality I can afford. If I eat, I want good food. So if I run an industry, why shouldn’t I want to do that in the best way possible?”

Ghulam Sabir of Gujarat tanners proudly shows how clean the water is after treatment with the new recycling techniques

Partners invest in educating tannery workers

To develop more new technologies for sustainable production, and to stimulate more tanneries to apply them, Stahl is setting up a Center of Excellence in Kanpur as part of the project. The infrastructure is almost ready and is scheduled to open in April 2019. After the formal launch, hundreds of tanners will be trained on how to improve their production practices and make them more sustainable.

The potential environmental impact of the advanced and accessible training at the Center of Excellence could lead to a profound shift as small companies are contributing to 90% of Indian leather production. Currently there are around 75 large-scale tanneries and around 300 medium and small-scale tanneries in Kanpur. These currently use 40 to 45 litres of water per kilo of skin or hide processed. According to the Indian Central Leather Research Institute, it should be possible to bring this down to 28 litres while reducing the amount of salts and heavy metals as well. 

Sustainability brings tanneries and agriculture together

But just a few kilometers further down the banks of the Ganges river, farmers are fighting their own war with the effects of the leather industry. Due to the malpractice of tanneries dumping polluted water in the Ganges river, the soil is contaminated with residues of sulphides, chromium, sulphates, dissolved and suspended solids, and salts. Solidaridad is now working to improve the quality of wastewater used for agriculture in downstream villages and to improve the livelihood of those farmers. Based on scientific research, Solidaridad is using algae to remediate water that is polluted from tannery. The first results of this pilot are very encouraging. The paddy and vegetable fields that were treated with the algae were doing much better than the untreated control plots. Plants were bigger and seem to contain less residues of heavy metals, making them more healthy.   

Cauliflowers are growing better after the soil has been treated with algae to reduce the absorption of heavy metals by the plants

As a result of the success of Solidaridad’s sustainable leather programme during its first year of implementation in India, Solidaridad has been asked by the government to scale up efforts in other industrial sectors of the Ganga Basin. The project also received recognition from the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and the Dutch Minister of Water and Infrastructure Cora van Nieuwenhuizen in May 2018. Nieuwenhuizen referred to Solidaridad’s programme as the first tangible outcome of the collaboration between the Government of India and the Netherlands with regards to the ambition of a clean Ganges.

Learn more about Solidaridad's leather programme.

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