In the white house – wet-white in the automotive sector

20 May 2016

Although the industry as a whole is dominated by wet-blue, the automotive sector is seeing a surge in wet-white. Andrea Guolo talks to Giancarlo Dani, president of Gruppo Dani, and the president of the Arzignanese tanners, Bernardo Finco, to report on the impact and perception of a new approach, and what it means for the future.

"The alternatives to Cr3 [chromium III] are more expensive, less efficient, [and] potentially impact on the environment and consumers." This quote is from the 'Report of the President' of June 2015 and it's one of the most significant passages with which Rino Mastrotto concluded his experience as the president of UNIC, one of the most important European Tanning Associations. This is due to approximately 65% of the continental turnover being dependent on Italy and because the country imports 93% of its raw material requirements.

UNIC, since June last year led by president Giovanni Russo, president of Naples-based tannery Russo di Casandrino, defended the "traditional" tanning method in Arzignano, the most important Italian (and European) tanning district, where production has seen growth by using an innovative alternative: wet-white.

During 2014-15, the Arzignano district has been characterised by a genuine boom in chrome tanning, driven by the automotive demand and, in particular, by the Volkswagen Group, which made its trademark with certain brands, such as Audi. The growing dynamics of the automotive market have given rise to innovations, with the alternative process of wet-white currently estimated in val di Chiampo to have an output of between five and six million square feet a month.

"And maybe more," says Giancarlo Dani, president of Gruppo Dani, one of the leading players in upholstery leather and among the top suppliers of finished leathers from wet-white. However, this growth also resulted in some significant issues in terms of sewage management, with a slowdown imposed in the activity during the mid-year (the warm European summer) months and more, which several observers attributed directly to the incoming water tanneries contributions from those who have chosen wet-white.

This is an accusation that Dani, proud of the 'sustainable leather' and 'zero impact' labels that characterise its activity, indignantly rejects. "There's no difficulty with the clean-up and those who may have evidence to suggest the contrary, must prove it," he continues. "For my part, [I don't want] to demonise chromium, considering that two thirds of my production depends on chrome-tanned hide. But this attack on the alternatives tanning systems is not acceptable.

"The truth is that the Asian crisis, which emerged in the second half of 2015, brought a significant part of the raw materials that previously were exported to China to Europe, resulting in a sharp increase in production in Arzignano, which saturated the capacity of the Acque del Chiampo water-treatment plant and increased the presence of chlorides, sulphates and COD. This is not a wet-white problem; this is due to the fact that many of those hides were dirty and needed [to undergo] major processes; [more so than] the past, when the Arzignanese tannery operated mainly from the crust or wet-blue."

The subject of chrome

According to UNIC, 82-85% of the world's hides are tanned with Cr3, including those for the automotive business. Wet-white, in essence, is considered a niche product, much like vegetable tanning, which is typical of the other great Italian leather district, Santa Croce sull'Arno, although numbers and especially perspectives between the two areas would appear different.

It is, however, important to clarify that wet-white, outside of automotive, has little to no market potential. "I [would] do it for footwear but it has no appeal," says the president of the Arzignanese tanners, Bernardo Finco, a fifth-generation tannery specialising in heavy bovine for furniture and uppers. "As well as the non-recovery of splits, lower yield and higher consumption of chemicals, the cost of wet-white for footwear is 10-25% [more] of that of the chromium, which is still the top choice for strength and malleability," he adds. "Rather than opportunities, in this case we should describe it as an option."

The cost aspect is also the main obstacle in the application of wet-white in another field, home furniture, where its limitations could potentially be irrelevant, as what has happened in the automotive sector, and the appeal of 'chrome-free' production, become more effective.

The purification problem

One then has to ask, how can the purification problem be solved for wet-white?

"It is time for the tanning industry to address things in a scientific way, not with opinions but with analytical results, reasoning, and a 360° perspective of the environmental and social impact," says Dani.

Problems related to water purification with wet-white would appear relevant in the consortium water-treatment plants; however, contained in the individual company plants, where substances from different tanning methods are not mixed. With regard to this, the disposal of a mix of chromium, aluminium and phenolic compounds would be more difficult than the same substances taken individually - when this was actually possible of course.

Another penalising aspect for wet-white derives from its trading limits. While it remains centred on the automotive sector, where just a few brands are directly connected with it, its market share in the leather industry is unlikely to reach double-digit percentages.

"We need to work a lot on the concept of eco-friendly leather," says Mastrotto now that some time has passed since he left UNIC. "But I don't see why chrome tanning cannot be, in turn, environmentally friendly. My impression is that we can make a qualitative leap by only discussing it as a truly ecological term; by measuring the social advantage, and giving official answers to manufacturers and consumers. Until we all think about the environmental impact as a way of doing business, such as a personal benefit, we won't get anything."

As for the problem of local purification, Mastrotto thinks that Arzignano already has solutions, but it completely lacks the will to make those little actions required to answer outstanding questions, including one linked to the disposal of tannery sludge. "If there was more cooperation and less protagonism," he concludes, "we could certainly work better and grow more, even as the amount of wet-white increases."

The Acque del Chiampo water-treatment plant.
Giancarlo Dani, president of Gruppo Dani, is a strong supporter of wet-white.
Rino Mastrotto follows up on his statements from ‘Relazione del Presidente’.

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