The town of Kanpur, India, in the boundaries of the Ganges, hosts a lively tannery business, employing 50,000 people directly and 250,000 indirectly. Leather processing, however, is one of the most polluting industries in the world and it absorbs huge quantities of water. Solidaridad is working in this area to create the leather sector more sustainable and to make food production safer and healthier.
Leather is one of the most polluting industries on the planet
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 annually. It’s tough to miss the abundant leather manufacturing in Kanpur. Everywhere along the roadsides you see heaps of blue-coloured hides. And even if you did not see it, you’d probably smell the liberal use of acrid substances used to process the hides. The industry includes big businesses, but also of small companies run in the courtyards behind simple houses on the roadside. One thing they have in common is their rancid odor expanding into surrounding communities and their important contribution to water contamination.
LOCAL LEADERS SETTING THE SUSTAINABLE EXAMPLE
One of those medium-scale businesses in the Kanpur area is Kings International. They’re among the leading runners in sustainable leather manufacturing. Taj Alam, managing director of Kings International and vice chairperson of the Uttar Pradesh Leather Industry Association, proudly explained each of the measures he’s taken to create his production more sustainable. The results are remarkable. With Solidaridad, the Indian CSIR Central Leather Research Institute and Stahl technology, they’re in the process of creating quite revolutionary processes to recycle the limewater in the leather production.
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 business institutions of Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam, Solidaridad operates on reducing the pollution load and water intake of tanneries by improving and introducing eco-friendly technologies within 100 tanning units across Kanpur and Unnao. These technologies include:
- Pickle (salt) free tanning
- Low sulphide enzyme-based unhairing
- Electro-oxidation-based zero waste discharge
- Phyco-remediation pilot for waste water from the downstream villages of Kanpur and Unnao to enhance the quality of the waste water
- Occupational health and safety interventions with a focus on aspects like preventative measures for H2S Gas, installation of suitable first aid facilities, correct use of personal protective gear, etc..
Solidaridad is encouraging tanneries to adopt these proven procedures. The biggest leather business in the area is already convinced and is analyzing these new techniques for their production. Given the size of the production, even tiny measures are leading to significant environmental advantage.
SMALL IMPROVEMENTS OVER TIME CAN HAVE A BIG IMPACT
More impressive, but on a much smaller scale, is the job of Ghulam Sabir of Gujarat Tanners: a tiny tannery which he conducts with around 10 workers. But even though his performance is extremely modest, he strives for the greatest environmental standards. He’s pleased to show his results in wastewater management before and after therapy.
The difference is hard to miss. Since a month or two, Sabir has handled with the aid of Solidaridad to save substantial litres of water annually by adaptations in his recycling procedure. Asked about what motivates him to create these additional investments, he pointed into the cloth of his shirt:”If I buy a shirt, I need the best quality I can afford. If I eat, I need great food. So if I run a business, why should not I need to do this in the best way possible?”
PARTNERS INVEST IN EDUCATING TANNERY WORKERS
To develop new technologies for sustainable production, and to stimulate more tanneries to employ them, Stahl is establishing a Center of Excellence in Kanpur within the project. The infrastructure is almost ready and is scheduled to start in April 2019. Following the formal launch, hundreds of tanners will be educated on how to improve their manufacturing practices and make them more sustainable.
The potential environmental effects of the complex and accessible training in the middle of Excellence could result in a profound change as small organizations are contributing to 90 percent of Indian leather manufacturing. Presently there are approximately 75 large scale tanneries and approximately 300 medium and small tanneries in Kanpur. These now use 40 to 45 litres of water per kilo of hide or skin processed. According to the Indian Central Leather Research Institute, it needs to be possible to bring this down to 28 minutes while reducing the number of salts and heavy metals too.
SUSTAINABILITY BRINGS TANNERIES AND AGRICULTURE TOGETHER
But only a few kilometers further down the banks of the Ganges river, farmers are fighting their own war with the impacts of the leather market. Because of the malpractice of tanneries dumping polluted water from the Ganges river, the soil is contaminated with residues of sulphides, chromium, sulphates, dissolved and suspended solids, and salts. Solidaridad is currently working to improve the quality of wastewater used for agriculture in downstream villages and also to improve the livelihood of these farmers. According to scientific research, Solidaridad is using algae to purify water that’s polluted from tannery. The initial results of the pilot are extremely encouraging. The paddy and vegetable fields which were treated with the algae were performing considerably better than the untreated control plots. Plants were larger and appear to contain less residues of heavy metals, which makes them more healthy.
As a consequence of the achievement of Solidaridad’s sustainable leather programme during its first year of implementation in India, Solidaridad was requested by the government to scale up efforts in other industrial sectors of the Ganga Basin. The project also received recognition in 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 concrete outcome of the collaboration between the Government of India and the Netherlands with Respect to the ambition of a fresh Ganges.