Monday, December 16, 2013

Hazaribagh Tannery District - The Sixth Most Polluted Place on Earth

Hazaribagh. The name means 'thousand gardens', but the historically whimsical name fits now as much as Hong Kong still meaning 'fragrant harbor'. Once, Hazaribagh may have been a paradise, and perhaps some pockets of it still reach for that golden past. The reality now is that the city is the sixth out of ten most polluted spots on the planet, according to a Green Cross of Switzerland study. Of the 270 registered tanneries in Bangladesh, 90% of these are located here, dumping 22,000 cubic meters of waste water each day. Waste water that includes hexavalent chromium, a heavy metal responsible for lung cancer, stomach and intestinal ulcers. Only two of these tanneries have any kind of waste treatment facility, but if more were added, clean-up would still take many years. There is a long road to travel before it becomes a thousand gardens again, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Environmental Concerns regarding Hazaribagh Tannery

Breakout Labs Provides Lab-Grown Leather and Meat Products

In the classic novel 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe', the characters settle down to an evening of drinks, fine dining, and the end of the universe. Sentient beings from all around the galaxy are in attendance. From sentient mattress creatures to hyper-intelligent shades of blue; you never know who you'll meet at Milliway's. Given the wide and varied forms of life that inhabit this imaginary universe created by Douglas Adams, one can assume that the food choices would be as diverse. It was decided, instead of killing and eating things that would have rather lived out long and happy lives, to design meat that not only wanted you to eat it, but was capable of encouraging you to do so, even so far as recommending which parts of it's body it had been cultivating for maximum flavor. Well, we aren't quite to that point yet, but Breakout Labs has is in the process of 'designing' 3D bioprinted meat and leather products grown from biopsied animal tissue materials. The meats would be animal product that never came off of the animal, that caused no harm to the animal, and produces fewer harmful environmental byproducts.

Tissue-Engineered Leather Could be Mass-Produced by 2017

Breakout Labs Announces Newest Grants at the Intersection of Biology and Advanced Technologies

Modern Meadow

Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for Academics

Wool inspects a shoe made from eco-leather.  
Richard Wool, a professor of chemical and bio-molecular engineering at University of Delaware, wins the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for Academics for his extensive work in developing an array of low-toxicity bio-based materials to support the green energy infrastructure. The Environmental Protection Agency awards program recognizes the design of safer and more sustainable, processes and products annually in five categories: Academic, Small Business, Greener Synthetic Pathways, Greener Reaction Conditions, and Designing Greener Chemicals. Wool created several high-performance materials using sustainable feedstocks including vegetable oils, recycled paper, chicken feathers, and flax fiber to make pressure-sensitive adhesives, composite resins, foams, and synthetic leather. Wool states that finding low toxicity replacements for commodity plastics such as polystyrene and PVC, adhesives, foams and composite resins, in addition to leather-like materials, must be a priority if we are to benefit the environment and human health. One of his more recent inventions is a breathable, eco-leather made from soybean oil and natural fiber. Wool’s start-up company, Eco-Leather Corp., avoids the traditional chemical leather tanning process and has resulted in collaborations with popular companies such as Nike and Puma to use the leather substitute in their products. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Tanfor T

Scientists over at Kemira, a chemical industry group, have developed a new, sustainable, chrome-free tanning system. Tanfor T is free of chromium, aldehydes, and other agents that create unwanted and expensive side-effects for tanners. It’s safe for humans and the environment and will reduce the cost of both solid and liquid waste. A high portion of Tanfor T fixes itself in the leather and what’s left of it in the bath poses no threat to the environment. It also outperforms traditional tanning systems when it comes to dyeability and only requires small adjustments to the traditional production process. Tanfor T is based on aluminum, silicates, and short chain organic acids. It offers a perfect dyeability and high dye affinity, which essentially means that it can be dyed to any color.

Salmon leather

Is salmon skin fashionable? With more and more companies are taking ethical considerations with their products, it’s not surprising that entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative products. Designers and brands are beginning to look towards alternative leather options that are byproducts of other industries. Salmon processing plants discard millions of tons of salmon skin every year. Stiven Kerestegian, CEO of ES-Salmon Leather, began purchasing skins from those processing plants and believed that they could be re-purposed into something aesthetically appealing, very resilient, and flexible. They have two different lines: one that uses natural plant extracts and oils for the tanning process, and the other that unfortunately uses traditional methods such as chromium. Their goal is to have a complete line that uses only eco-friendly chemicals.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Pamela Anderson Exposes... Indian Tanneries

I admit it, I eat meat. I know that the only way to make that decision and not support the captive cruelty of the meat industry is to hunt my own food and prepare it, but as hypocritical as it makes me feel, I also don't like the idea of being the one who tracks down and shoots Bambi's mom. The thought, and the soft-focus, Disney-colored images that flood my mind soon after are enough to turn my stomach and convince me that maybe, at least for today, just ignoring the implications of whether or not me spending $3 at a grocery store is contributing to horrific animal cruelty. I'd feel worse about it, but I know that this very thought process is far from unique, and is likely a silent mental ritual that I share with so many of you, dear readers.

However, condoning the leather industry through a $3 or $300 purchase is something that, given the horrors of the video that I just saw, I couldn't bring myself to do with even the hardiest attempt to swallow my guilt. Regardless of my issues with some of the organization's tactics, Pamela Anderson Lee and PETA put together a video exposing the horrific details behind how it is that Indian Tanneries go from cow to leather. 

The video is linked below, is definitely NSFW and should only be viewed by those 18 years of age and older with strong stomachs. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Fake leather, synthetic leather, artificial leather, and pleather are some of the names people might call leather made from polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Pleather is made up of polyurethane (fossil fuels) or other types of plastics like polyvinyl chloride, which is more commonly known as vinyl.

Activists block Terminals Pty Ltd, major
supplier of feedstock to PVC industry.

PVC production releases dioxins, persistent organize pollutants, and further toxic emissions when it's burned in garbage incinerators. The Association of Plastics in Europe (APE) states that PVC is one of earliest plastics that is derived from salt (57%) and oil or gas (43%) and according to Greenpeace, it's the second most commonly used plastic in the world and the most harmful to the environment.

PU on the other hand is not only a affordable, animal-free, leather alternative. It's recognized as being environmentally friendly, synthetic materials. Though toxicity isn't much of an issue with PU, it's still made essentially of fossil fuels, which emits carbon dioxide during production. According to APE, 3.7 pounds of CO2 is emitted when producing a pound of PU, which is a fraction of burning a gallon of gasoline (19.64 pounds). PU leather, contrary to popular belief, is actually more durable than real leather. Polyurethane itself is so versatile it's used as an insulator in many products and appliances such as refrigerators and astronaut suits. By adapting its molecules, we can give it lots of different properties. For example surfboards are made to be light yet strong, wheels on roller blades to be resistant, and automobiles for shock absorption. So if you're adamant on getting leather, be eco-friendly and consider the much cheaper polyurethane alternative.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Bribe by any Other Name

   Human Rights Watch reports that the infamous businesses responsible they have coined Bangladesh's "Toxic Tanneries" have been fined for their excessive pollution. As extensively documented by Human Rights Watch, and mentioned many times by the EcoPol Project, these Hazaribagh tanneries are the source of immense environmental damage to the region, their employees, and anyone living nearby. An official in Bangladesh's Environment Department is quoted as having told Human Rights Watch that there exists neither monitoring nor enforcement of the tanneries' 
   In spite of this, fines were levied against two of the tanneries, the Bay Tanneries and the Ayub Brothers tannery, charged $50,000, and $25,000 respectively. Human Rights Watch is unsure of why these two tanneries were chosen to be the recipients of fines when nearly  150 tanneries in the Hazaribagh district of Dhaka collectively discharge nearly 21,000 cubic meters of waste, without any pre-treatment to abate the levels of toxins.  These toxins are responsible for the painful dermatological diseases as well as the respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses all too common in Dhaka. Nonetheless, Ayub Brothers and Bay Tanneries were singled out and fined for not having effluent treatment plants that would filter their wastewater and diminish the amount of poison being pumped out by their leather processing facilities.
   90-95% of the tanneries in Bangladesh are located within the Hazaribagh neighborhood of Dhaka, employing between 8,000 and 12,000 people, and the excessive toxic waste being excreted by these tanneries has led to a foul, chemical smell in the public water and air. In this slum, corrugated tin is often used as construction material, but the quantity of pollutants present causes the metal to deteriorate at a rapid rate. Residents report that within six months, the metal is corroded and requires replacement. It is hard to hear about such horrid conditions, and yet, we hear about them, or others similar, on a nearly daily basis.
Children in a Hazaribagh Tannery. Source: AP
   But as hard as these atrocities are to hear about, it is far harder to understand why so few tanneries were fined when conditions such as these are so prevalent. It is harder to understand why only two tanneries were chosen to pay such negligibly low numbers when so many tanneries are responsible and making such monumentally massive sums of money. No doubt, it is far harder to try and comprehend the small sum charged than it is to read the depictions of such deplorable conditions. It is hard to attempt to comprehend why so little is done in a neighborhood where there are so many thousands for whom employment is synonymous with poisoning, and where so many tens of thousands more are essentially punished because they happen to live within the pollution and poverty provided by the neighborhood leather industry without receiving any information given about the potential harmful effects of the chemical compounds they have as neighbors.
   In a little over a year, between June of 2011 and July of 2012, these tanneries exported almost $663,000,000 in leather goods. Yet the total fines that were levied against the two tanneries unlucky enough to actually receive a penalty added to a paltry $75,000.  Not only that, but although Bangladesh's Environment Department assessed the fine, there is no information given about how the money will be used, about whether the fines will be used to help construct waste treatment plants or, at the very least, about whether the fines would repeat for those two tanneries each year that they are out of compliance, or whether other tanneries will be fined in future if they fail to produce wastewater treatment plants. The Environment Department also failed to explain the reasoning behind deciding upon such small sums for the fine. 
   To be an efficient deterrent, fines for being out of compliance with environmental standards are there to encourage businesses to adhere to those policies. The amounts fined should to be large enough that they produce a substantially negative impact upon the profits of businesses fined. These fines should also be large enough that, upon performing a profit/loss analysis, each business would determine that the cheaper option is to simply comply with the environmental guidelines.
Worker at a Dhaka Tannery with Tannery Waste. Source: AP
   When considering the total devastation in the area, the immense loss of life, the damages and health issues caused, and the long term complications that will continue to arise in the region, these fines are far from fine. There was less than $100,000 charged in total, divided between two out of 150 tanneries, and likely to make so minor an impact upon their profit margins as to be almost non-existent. These negligible fines are certainly not enough to make the costs of installing and operating a wastewater treatment facility cheaper than paying fines. As the EcoPol project has detailed, bribery is a huge issue that surrounds the tannery industry.

   And it is for all these reasons that I cannot help but wonder if these "fines" are a bribe by any other name. The fines came just four months after Human Rights Watch's report on the Hazaribagh tanneries drew unparalleled levels of attention to their activities. The timing is questionable and has the markings of a PR cleanup attempt, rather than an environmental one. These fines, seemingly randomly assigned,  collected without disclosure about where the funds will be allocated, and shockingly small in comparison to the total profits of these companies, strike me as a new type of bribe. One that can be made above board instead of under a desk, in plain view, allowing the corrupt officials to receive their funds while appearing to be cracking down on environmental issues in their districts, while in actuality, continuing to allow business as usual, and profiting from the proliferation of pollutants, all the while pretending to be working against it.

The Best Things Take Time

The Best Things Take Time

The video above outlines a local tannery here in Oregon that has insisted on using old fashioned methods since their establishment in 1863. This process is called vegetable tanning and uses natural chemical compounds called tannins in place of the environmentally hazardous chromium salts. Muir and McDonald Tannery's primary product is steer leather-- which is used in the manufacturing of saddles. The company only produces about 60 hides a week due to the time that it takes to complete the natural tanning process. This is compared to commercial tanneries that have outputs near 50,000 hides a week. But there are several advantages to waiting the long 10 weeks:

1.     Use of natural products – This means that there are no harsh synthetic compounds, no potentially cancer-causing dyes or other artificial substances added. What you get are the deep, rich hues created by Mother Nature herself in the great outdoors.  And when you smell it, it smells like leather—not a chemical factory.

2.     Benefits of aging – Artificial tanning methods can cause leather to fade, crack, or even bleed after a short period of time, staining your garments and making frequent replacement or treatment necessary.  On the other hand, vegetable tanning is a gentle method that adds a lustrous patina to leather, and produces a soft and supple product that does not crack or harden.

3.     Truly unique characteristics – Some things, like aircraft wings or car keys, should come off the assembly line as close to the design specs as possible.  Others, however, suffer when subjected to such a one-size-fits-all approach.  Leather goods fall into this latter category. Impersonal tanning methods used in giant factories turn out millions of items in rapid succession, each of which is virtually identical to every other one.  But no two vegetable-tanned products are exactly alike.  There will always be some subtle variation in hue or tone that makes it truly one-of-a-kind.  This allows its owner to say that they have something no one else on earth has.

4.     Environmentally friendly practices – Modern industrial leather tanning methods uses highly toxic compounds that poison the earth and pollute streams and oceans. What makes this worse is that these methods are most commonly used in nations with few (if any) laws in place to protect the environment.  When these noxious chemicals are dumped on the ground or into water sources, they kill fish and wildlife, fill the atmosphere with deadly fumes, and eventually find their way to the air you breathe, the streams you fish in or drink from, and the creeks or swimming pools in which your children play. [S. Texas Saddlery]

To learn more about toxic tannery practices, alternatives like vegetable tanning, and more about the global leather industry's effect click to visit our site EcoPol: Leather

A Killer Shine: Spotlight on Chromium

Images from Wikipedia Commons

   Chromium is a highly toxic chemical used in the production of Stainless Steel to prevent iron from rusting. When electro-plated onto other metals, it becomes chrome. In 2010, Chromium was rated by as the third greatest toxic threat to the globe, with an estimated 7.3 million people at risk within their identified pollution sites and an estimated 13-17 million worldwide. These numbers, and this degree of chromium pollution however, doesn't come from stainless steel production, but rather, the majority of this industrial waste spews from tanneries. Although the role of Chromium in tanning is something about which EcoPol has previously written, the degree of danger posed by the compound requires a second look. 
Image from
   Chromium salt, usually Trivalent Chromium, CR(III), is used to tan leather by causing the collagen within the animal hide to be cross-linked, helping the leather to take on a tougher, hardier quality. Though the chromium used in the production of tanned leather is of the Trivalent variety, CR(III)  and as a result, is considered far less harmful than Hexavalent  Chromium CR(VI), as a Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology report authored by Avit Kumar Bhowmik and M. Samiul Islam discloses, under the heat and pressure found within the tanneries, as well as within the soil into which the toxic Chromium seeps, the mostly harmless Trivalent Chromium quickly changes its molecular structure, and forms Hexavalent Chromium, CR(VI). Hexavalent Chromium, Cr(VI), is toxic and carcinogenic, and can be mutagenic when inhaled. In a 2001 WHO report, the Hazaribagh tanneries employ over 8,000 workers who suffer from dermatological, gastrointestinal, and other diseases, while over 90% of their total employees die before the age of 50.
   These numbers, certainly, are shocking, and beg the question: why is it that work requiring chemicals as toxic as chromium being done in nations so impoverished, within facilities that lack the infrastructure necessary to properly filter and prevent the spread of these toxins? The answer, of course, much like the problem, is complex and interwoven, as the EcoPol project has previously detailed. As we at the EcoPol project have also previously written,  the stability and economic state of these nations leave them particularly susceptible to bribery, but the poverty of the nations has another draw; low income areas mean low income workers who are willing to do more, and take more risks for far less pay. The result? Areas like Hazaribagh make prime locations for cheap leather due to the low overhead. Although this cost may be negligible in dollars, as previously detailed by the EcoPol project, the remaining balance is paid in health risks and deductions from the quality of human life.

   These low labor and material costs have led to the majority of the world's tanning activity to occur in low and middle income nations. The cost savings in legal currencies add up to low levels of environmental protection, low amounts of filtration and environmental restoration, and little to no care or concern given to the well-being of the employees. The low costs overall trickle down to low costs spent on environmental protection and  as a result, the toxins trickle out of the refineries. Chromium exposure affects most of the workers through inhalation at the work site, and those around the tanneries are, in turn, poisoned as the Chromium effluent seeps into the nearby rivers and streams, leeches into the topsoil, and makes its way into ground water and drinking water supplies. These local rivers and streams are then used for bathing, dish and clothes washing, and sometimes by children for swimming.
Image from
  Chromium pollution is also caused by the large amounts of skins, hides, and fats that are dumped onto riverbanks and fields nearby populated areas, causing further pollutants to leech into the soil, such as cadmium, nickel, and lead. These toxins, alongside chromium, can, as they mix with water, then make their way into crops that have been watered with the contaminated water sources. These chromium-laden solid wastes, such as the skins and fats, are also often converted to chicken feed, which then contaminates livestock and the humans who eat the tainted meat. Another route of chromium exposure through food sources comes when the water polluted with chromium seeps into the seas and rivers, contaminating the area's fish and shellfish, which are often a food source for the local populations.

   Chromium pollution and the horrific human effects it causes is a major problem caused by tanneries. Much like the EcoPol project wrote about China,  the main vector by which this poison is spread is the water. And also like in China, these pollutants, once in the waterways, continue to cause widespread repercussions as the pollutants circulate and are bathed in, drank, and eaten. However, there is hope. The Blacksmith Institute has had success using electron donors into well water which converts Hexavalent Chromium, Cr(VI) to the less toxic Trivalent Chromium, CR(III). Further treatments, such as bone charcoal, and salt-tolerant bacteria, introduced into the contaminated soil areas, can further reduce the amount of chromium that has been absorbed into the land. In combination with these treatments, secured landfills and waste treatment facilities can further greatly reduce the health risks posed by this killer compound. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bribery and Corruption

According to Transparency International Bangladesh, the average household paid a total of 6,900 takas (approx $90) annually in payoffs - roughly a tenth of the yearly average salary.
One of the biggest issues that third world countries deal with is bribery and corruption.  Tanneries in all countries are subject to laws which require their liquid waste output to be cleaned and purified of the chemicals used during tanning.  However, third world countries where bribery is part of the culture, are often non-compliant - paying the bribe money to avoid the regulations.  The result is an environmental catastrophe which impacts all people who live in the area as well as all those who are downstream of the contamination.

Bribery is not a problem that can be solved with simple answers.  It has been pervasive in Bangladesh for many decades due to political instability and a ruling class that is subject to corruption. Transparency International in 2011 gave Bangladesh a 2.7 out of 10, with zero being the most corrupt.  With the problem being this severe and this entrenched, it seems like a very difficult problem to overcome.  But success in eliminating bribery and corruption will be the final keystone that brings these countries into caring for their environment and people in a way that makes their businesses behave sustainably.

Youth festival organised by Transparency International Bangladesh
The government is making efforts to change this and solve these problems.  Some of these efforts are in place because the world is paying attention to the deplorable treatment of the workers and the environment in these third world countries.  Banks start making requirements for regulations and transparency.  The people who are most harmed and vulnerable to bribery and corruption are the poor.  These are the people least able to fight back and the ones who suffer the most from the challenges.  For real reform to take place, there will have to be pressure internally from the people who are governed.  When the demand becomes high enough - change will have to be enacted.  Education and community forum for the people, including the poor who are the most disenfranchised will have the most success in reforming the problems these countries face.

Solutions to Third World Problems for Tannery Pollution

There are many reasons that the environment is so negatively impacted in third world countries like Bangladesh and many others, that are participating in leather tanning.  There are at least three ways that could be approached in a way to yield success in changing the behavior of these industries.  The tanneries need a positive incentive for compliance, education to understand the necessity and a voice should be given to those who are most impacted for continued observation and improvement.

Currently, there is no incentive for businesses to comply with the strict laws that are already in place to create a clean environment around their industry.  Bribery is standard practice for dealing with the rules and those who wish to comply find that they must pay the bribe as well as pay to clean their waste products.  This creates an atmosphere which actively discourages businesses from treating their wastewater.  Bribery is a large topic and will be addressed in a future blog.  Even if the bribery is addressed, there is no positive incentive for cooperation and therefore more effort is made to evade the rules than to comply.

One idea to encourage compliance would be to have a positive incentive rather than a punishment for non-compliance.  Rewarding businesses for creating clean water would encourage them to do their best to create systems that accomplish this goal.  If they received discounts on fees, or financial rewards - this would be a reason for all the owners to work towards compliance, but especially those who are smaller and struggling the most.  Many of the tanneries are small businesses with such a slim profit margin that they are unable to afford the technology to clean the water, or to use less damaging chemicals.  However, if the government were to give incentives for clean water, and organizations wanting to positively impacted the environment made loans to enable businesses to purchase the equipment used to clean the water - the results would likely be much more successful than the current system.
Water Lilly farms in Bangladesh - a use of clean water by the community.
Many of the business owners are unaware of the damage that their unfiltered water does to the environment.  Education of these owners would go a long way towards improving the efforts people are willing to make about cleaning up their businesses.  To change the ingrained thinking, would require an outreach program with easily understood examples of how the different chemicals and processes impact the environment and the people who live on it.  No one wants to pollute their own home and these people are living in the same area that they are polluting.  Creating a better understanding of the impact of their actions - would also give them a great deal more incentive to work harder to find ways to clean up their businesses.

The owner of a recently established tannery said:
“When the environmental regulations started to be enforced, the people in the industry were mostly uneducated and not interested, they did install primary treatment plants but only because they had to. They went for it with a broken heart. The awareness has only come later, maybe the past 5 or 8 years. New people are moving into the business with more education and different attitudes. We go for cleaning voluntarily.”

It would also be very helpful if there was some sort of community forum for the people who live in these areas to give feedback and pressure to the business owners who are not complying.  When they are accountable to each other and not simply to public officials who are easily bribed and sent away - this pressure can add to the percentage of owners who will conform and follow create better practices of cleaning their environmental pollution.  This could be achieved by town meetings - possibly organized by mothers and or others who live in the area and care.  People who live downstream of the pollution may also decide to bring pressure to bear on this area - in order to convince the perpetrators to change their ways.

Any of these three ideas would go a long ways towards implementing positive change in what is currently a very corrupt and poorly run system that is damaging to the people and environment.  There are a great number of people living in and near the area who are negatively impacted by this problem.  Finding positive ways to educate, incentive, and apply pressure for compliance, will change not only this portion of the world, but positively impact a whole industry in 3rd world countries that are struggling. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

China: Water, Water... Nowhere. And Less than 23% to Drink.

Sowing the seeds of awareness and alerting others to the damage caused by the leather industry is the first, and arguably, one of the most vital steps in halting the deluge of harmful effects that stream from leather producers that neglect to engage in even the most basic environmental protection and employee safety protocols. After all, those of us here at the EcoPol project have made this our mission for the Fall 2013 term. However, in attempting to rally others to the cause­, in effort to prevent the problem from appearing too vast, too amorphous, and too unsolvable, I find myself wanting to fixate upon one example as an illustration of the illnesses present within the light leather manufacturing field and I begin to come down with environmental myopia. For myself, that myopia leads me to focus on the now notorious tannery districts of Harzaribargh. Sure, these tanneries are a perfect example of the problems present within the leather industry, but they are also an example of an example that all too easily becomes the only instance of environmental damage caused by the leather industry that we see. However, although the images and stories  that seep from that tainted tannery district like so much effluvium are indeed useful tools in utilizing real world events to instill an emotional resonance in our reader, it is imperative that this single example remain just that- a single example among myriad more. But if we fixate too ferociously or too frequently upon one, then all of the interconnected environmental issues woven together can be too easily overlooked, and the bigger consequences to which these cascading environmental issues may lead may approach without us ever noticing.
To find another instance in which the leather industry is generating massive profits by failing to prevent the generation of massive amounts of pollution, we need only look to the nation that leads the pack in leather production. China has steadily produced over 2,000,000,000 square feet of bovine light leather each year since 2001 and in the first nine months of 2013 alone completed the export of 60.2 billion USD worth of leather, at an increase of 8.6% more leather exported than during the same period in 2012. There's no question that year by year, China tans more hides than any other nation, but as we have all seen, the process of tanning leather leaves behind byproducts and pollutants that threaten the environment and any life that comes into contact with them. This is cause for concern when we consider that China is producing such large amounts of leather, and has historically been known for large numbers of leather producers that ignore environmental regulations and restrictions in favor of cheap labor and low manufacturing costs. Although organizations like the China Leather Industry association (CLIA) have partnered with environmentally-focused NGOs, the Chinese Federal Government, and the International Leather Working Group, industrial pollution from processes such as leather tanning have already created an immense pollution problem in China, a nation with a population that is disproportionately high when compared to its water resources. To further imbalance this already top heavy ratio, in 2009 alone, the Chinese leather industry was responsible for discharging more than of 249,000,000 cubic meters of waste water.
The ripple effects caused by this water pollution are where we see how crucial it is to never become myopically fixated upon a single instance of a greater problem, because it is in China's water where the interconnected nature of these aforementioned environmental issues become evident. This water pollution by the Chinese leather industry is depleting the already low levels of usable and potable water that China has. China's population comprises 20% of the world's people, and yet only has access to 7% of the world's freshwater supply. Furthermore, of that 7%, the vast majority of China's freshwater is so polluted that it's unfit for consumption; 77% of key lakes and reservoirs, 50% of city groundwater, and 43% of major river basins are all non-potable. The chromium pollution from the effluents of China's leather industry and the negative health effects that it poses is bad enough, but when viewed in the greater context of China's water crisis, this ties the leather industry to deteriorating global water-nomics. As China Water Risk, a non-profit organization dedicated to the study and abatement of China's water Crisis points out, this water crisis not only effects the other nations dependent upon China for water by decreasing the supply of freshwater while the demand continues to increase, but can also have long-lasting and far reaching impacts upon power, trade, and can lead to civil unrest and even out-and-out warfare between nations for control of the water supply.
China's leather industry's continued growth and its immense fiscal profits come at a cost of more than just the lives lost and health being ruined right now by the current conditions around the areas tainted by the chemicals used for tanning. In the example of China's leather industry, we see how far-reaching the environmental issues of leather production are, and how many other future disasters,  whether caused by man-made conflicts for control of natural resources or pollution-based blowback from decades of disregard for how delicately interwoven are the elements of our environment.

The High Cost of Low Overhead

At almost $1 billion dollars a year in sales, the leather industry in Bangladesh is one of the country’s most profitable sectors. Last year, it earned $451 million by exporting leather and leather products. This year, the industry is expected to reach a $1.04-billion dollar export target set by the country’s government.  But is the human cost of this multi-million dollar industry too high?
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, a 15 year old boy named Zakir Hussain coughs as he speaks about the leather tannery in which he both works and lives, and his love of cricket, a sport he will probably never play again. “I can’t run as fast between wickets as I used to. I get tired quickly now . . . and my eyes burn sometimes.” In the 5 months since Zakir started at the Tippera Tannery, (one of the hundreds in this area where raw animal skins are processed with toxic chemicals) he has lost almost 12 pounds and most of his stamina.
The chemicals used in the tannery are slowly killing Hussain, just as they’re killing thousands of other tannery workers, according to the World Health Organization 90 percent of Hazaribagh’s tannery workers die before the age of 50. Most will suffer respiratory illnesses and have skin diseases, and many of them started working in the tanneries as children, some as young as 7, working 12 or even 14 hour days. Considerably longer than the five-hour limit for adolescents in factory work established by Bangladeshi law. 
Almost all of Bangladesh’s nearly 200 tanneries are concentrated in Hazaribagh, a densely populated and mostly residential area on the banks of the Buriganga River in southwestern Dhaka, where approximately 90 percent of the estimated $600 million dollars in leather exports are produced each year. Hazaribagh, is also rated among the top five worst toxic threats to the world by The Blacksmith Institute.
Tanneries in Hazaribagh employ up to 15,000 workers, most of which don’t even wear basic protective gear like masks, gloves, or boots. Government officials told Human Rights Watch that they do not enforce environmental or labor laws with respect to Hazaribagh’s tanneries, leaving it completely un-regulated.
The sight of barefoot young men pushing carts piled high with skins in various stages of processing are a common sight. In the streets a current of chemical waste, an unearthly blue-black oily fluid, slowly pushes through a putrid mix of animal hair, bits of skin and rubbish runs into the open gutters winding through Hazaribagh before emptying into the Buriganga River.
Records are scarce and there is no data available on how many workers have died in the six decades since the first tanneries started operations, but the tanneries are notorious for their horrific workplace accidents, children as young as 11 have been treated for on the job injuries and illness from exposure to toxic chemicals. Children like Zakir Hussain working long days in deplorable conditions earning barely enough to feed themselves. Stories like Zakir’s are common and there are far more heartbreaking ones out there.
Mohd Abdul Matin a doctor and general secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon, (an environmental organization in Dhaka that advocates for safe practices at its tanneries) said “This is Bangladesh . . . people dying isn’t really the priority. When I first started looking into it, people laughed at me. They said I was wasting my time because who would care about poor workers being sick or dying.”  These tanneries are able to operate under a blanket of inaction, by a governing body that lacks man power and favors friendly relationships with management, forcing residents and workers to live and labor in a filthy, noxious environment that is damaging to their health. Resulting in a socio-economic environment which allows such environmental atrocities to exist, no over sight, safety equipment, or even adequate filtration is employed. 
These safety measures of course, would cost the management of these tanneries large sums of money, and in ignoring them, these companies are permitted to produce the same product without the premium prices that such protection would cost. Profits, in their most basic form, are calculated by subtracting the overhead incurred during the manufacture of a product from the of the revenue its sale generates. When toxic chemicals are allowed to create small creeks of wastewater in public streets, these companies circumvent the costs associated with preventing such catastrophes. In so doing, the amount of money spent on each square meter of tanned hide is cut substantially, and the revenue its sale generates grows proportionally.
But does scrimping dollars on manufacturing safety make sense? As these safety measures are sidestepped, their financial costs are debited from the lives of those subjected to the side effects of managerial savings. Employees like Zakir Hussain pay the difference every day - not in wages or taka, but in deductions from their quality of life.
As we at the EcoPol Project often say and are constantly reminded, the ecological problems facing our planet are interconnected, but so are their solutions. This holiday season, while shopping for our family and loved ones, I encourage all of us to budget for not just what each gift will cost our own pocket books, but to also consider the costs already incurred by others, from the manufacturer to the store employees, and to account in every purchase for the human cost in those less tangible currencies that do not serve as a form of legal tender.

The Cruel Truth behind "Eco- Friendly" Leather

From start to finish producing leather  though either chrome/chemical tanning or vegetable tanning, comes with a laundry list of problems, land devastation, environmental pollution, loss and devastation of natural resources, and water supply contamination, not to mention the spread of disease and the abuse and death of billions of animals.
The amount of energy alone that is required to create a leather hide is 20 times greater than the amount of energy needed to produce a similar one from synthetic material. But advocates of leather use feel that the process is a necessary evil, and we shouldn’t stop using leather, but we should instead use “preferable” methods to produce leather. Vegetable Tanning has long been viewed as being a less harmful alternative to the chemical tanning processes. However the only difference between vegetable and chemical tanning, is the source of the color. Vegetable tanning uses ingredients from vegetable matter, such as tree bark, which gives the leather a more subtle, muted color. Every other step in the process is exactly the same.
Organizations like The Leather Working Group, a group made up of stake holders in the leather industry whose mission according to their web site is to “Develop and maintain a protocol that assesses the compliance and environmental performance of tanners and promotes sustainable and appropriate environmental business practices within the leather industry.”  The group has long supported the use of vegetable tanning processes over chemical ones; however Bill Bartholomew, a representative for The Leather Working Group admitted at the World Shoes Accessories Eco Ethics Conference in February of 2009 that so called “eco-friendly” vegetable tanning is just as polluting as chrome tanning. Let’s just say that these businesses are heavily invested in seeing a future for the leather industry, which could cause ecological reasonability to take a backseat to profit margins.
Aside from the myth about vegetable tanning being a less harmful alternative to chemical tanning, the other common misconception is that leather is a byproduct of the meat industry, making it more eco friendly because it’s using parts of the animal that would otherwise be wasted, almost like recycling. Unfortunately this is not really the case, in some cases farmers will sell the skins of an animal that was slaughtered primarily for meat. But make no mistake this is a money making effort, not something done out of the goodness of their hearts, it’s done to maximize profits.
The profit that a meat farmer can make selling skins varies greatly depending on the animal involved: while cows, of course, provide most of the leather we use, but there is an increasing demand for more exotic varieties like Ostrich, or even Sting Ray. Animals from which meat is not highly desirable or profitable, but whose skins are both.
There is just no way to defend leather as “eco- friendly” or sustainable, Of course alternatives made from PVC and PU plastics have environmental problems of their own, advancing the argument against them and increasing the demand for better alternatives. As a result innovations in alternative materials are making use of new organic, plant based, and post consumer recycled waste materials, in an effort to create new alternative textile options.
What it really comes down to is us, we as consumers have to take the responsibility for what were purchasing, because it is through those purchases that businesses decide what direction to go in. If we continue to buy leather products then businesses will continue to make them. But if we make the conscious effort to avoid leather products and buy items that are made from alternative materials, then hopefully the industry will fallow and make more of those items available for purchase. 

Closed Loop Recycling: New options for Old Leather

I recently read an online article by Kate Sheppard called “Is Fake Leather Really More Eco-Friendly Than Real?” in the article Sheppard discussed the actual cost of commonly used  leather substitutes,  and the synthetic fibers used to create these faux-leather products. The point she was making in the article was that just because an animal didn’t have to directly give up its skin for the product, doesn’t mean that the ecological cost of these types of materials are necessarily lower. In the case of leather substitutes most are plastic based products - which were likely derived from petroleum. While other faux leathers she explains are even made using polyvinyl chloride (better known as PVC), a product that contains, among other chemicals, phthalates which are known to be bad for both humans and the environment.
In the article Sheppard writes that “For nearly every option, one can list off pros and cons. Petroleum for plastics is a depleting resource. Most cotton production involves a lot of water and a chemical pesticides and fertilizers (less than 1 percent of the world's cotton is organically produced). Some companies are starting to make plastics from renewable biopolymers, derived from sources like corn, but those come with the same land-use and lifecycle concerns as bio-fuels. The list goes on and on.”
So I found myself thinking “what’s an environmentally conscientious consumer to do?”  One of things mentioned in Sheppard’s article is a process called “Closed-Loop Recycling”  a system of production that utilizes the waste, or by product created by one product to make a new one. (For example: recycling waste newspaper to create paper -board or other types of paper). Clothing companies like Patagonia, and Timberland have initialed their own Closed Loop Recycling programs, where customers can return their worn out synthetic products (made from things like polypropylene) back to the company, so that the materials can be used to create new items. Using Closed Loop Recycling you could potentially use the same non-renewable resource over and over again.
The outdoor clothing company Patagonia first began using recycled soda bottles in some of its jackets back in 1993. In more recent years (2005) the clothing company launched their “Common Threads Recycling Program” and began collecting worn out clothing to be made into new items. In 2007 the company announced that its goal was to become a completely closed loop clothing line by the year 2010. In 2010 Patagonia public relations representative Jess Clayton announced that 83 percent of styles in the company’s Spring 2010 line would be completely recyclable. For Fall 2010, that number dropped slightly to 77 percent. But the company was back on track by the Spring 2011 collection, inching closer to their ultimate goal with 90 percent of the products able to be recycled. Though the company didn’t make its initial 2010 deadline, the company eventually was able to achieve their goal of 100 percent recyclability in 2011.
Currently the company’s web page boasts that in the 8 years since the program’s inception, they have recycled over 56.6 tons of warn out Patagonia clothing and gear. Today you can return any Patagonia product to the company and they will reuse it, recycle it into new fabric, or make it into a brand new product all together.
The footwear giant Timberland has launched a similar option, a Closed Loop Recycling Program of their own called “Design for Disassembly” which essentially means the product has been designed so that it can be taken apart for recycling when the product gets worn out. For Timberland this was through their line called “EarthKeepers 2.0” each product in the EarthKeepers 2.0 collection was engineered with disassembly in mind, and because of that approximately 70 to 90 percent of the materials that make up each shoe can be reused or recycled, including the metal hardware which is detachable. Even the leather uppers, straps, and actual foot beds, can be reincarnated into new footwear. Timberland insures that it sources its leathers from an environmentally preferable sources (preferable not perfect).  The company also only sources from tanneries that have been given a *Leather Working Group Silver-rating or higher. Plus, they’re all shoed with detachable - and recyclable “Green Rubber “ outsoles, made from recycled rubber, recycled PET (plastic bottles), and other organic content. The company boasts that recycled rubber tires make up nearly half of that content.
So, is Closed Loop recycling the answer to completely eco-friendly consumer goods? Probably not - Certainly not by itself anyway, but it does show that companies are seeing the demand for sustainable practices and materials from consumers, that they’re responding to that demand, and trying to meet it. Programs like these show movement in the right direction, and from some pretty big brand companies. It’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction. 

Side by Side: Scant Sustainability and Devastating Deforestation in Brazil

We at the EcoPol project have focused heavily on the Hazaribagh tanneries in Bangladesh, and with good reason: the atrocious treatment of the environment and employees there is so shocking, so dramatic that it deserves the attention of the world. But many of us also recall another heinous environmental practice also committed in the name of bovine leather from the news reports that we saw as children in the 80s and 90s. Who can forget the appalling  images of lush Amazonian rainforest belching forth billows of opaque smoke, blotting out the blue sky from the background of the TV screen as bulldozers tore from fertile soil the still living roots of fresh-cut tree stumps? Although the amount of attention given to this practice has decreased dramatically, the deforestation of South American rainforests continues to this day in the name of increased production of bovine light leather. Although the topic is old, it deserves a new look, as recent developments and changes to Brazil's Forest Code could herald the widespread return of the grisly scenes like those we saw on TV as children, rather than causing such practices to fade into memory as one more of humanity's never-to-be repeated industrial nightmares.
Brazil is a nation of opposites; a country that at times seems to be comprised almost solely of stark contrasts stitched together like a quilt of clashing opposites. Brazil is marked by seemingly impossible comparisons: poverty-stricken favelas mere minutes from the metropolis of São Paulo, high tech private hospitals that rival developed western nations' state-of-the-art medical facilities standing alongside the appallingly  understaffed and unsanitary public versions. Even when seen from far above the Earth, from distances at which socioeconomic differences all appear to blend together, Brazil's polar nature is on display; in satellite photos, the country is a colorful patchwork. Vibrant greens and blues bloom from vast tracts of rainforest, spreading until they butt-up against the sharply defined lines drawn in the ashen blacks, tarry browns, and dusty grays of the cities: favelas and fifth avenues, slums and skyscrapers, asphalt and jungle. Indeed, Brazil is a nation typified by extremes, where leaders of drug trafficking gangs are recruited by fashionistas to trade in their life of slums and slinging drugs for red carpets and catwalks.
Taking into account the frequency with which polar opposites like these co-exist in close proximity inside the South American nation, it becomes less surprising to consider that a country where over one in five citizens lives below the poverty line also has a thriving middle class that has boosted the country to a global economic power. But with this increased presence in the global market and the subsequent boon for Brazil's economy, the other side of the ever-rotating coin that is Brazil comes with a tragic turn for the environment. A turn which, with few exceptions, seems to exist to this day without its opposite alongside.
Many of those aforementioned spans of rainforest are being clear cut, burned, and converted into space for cattle ranching. Starting in 2006, Brazil became the world's 2nd most prolific exporter of bovine leather. Between 2006 and 2008, the nation was exporting between 1,500,000,000 and 2,000,000,000 square feet of leather. Greenpeace reports that during that same time period, over 80% of the deforestation devastating the rainforests within Brazil was done in the name of expanding the amount of acreage viable for cattle. Consequently, with 80% of the deforestation caused by the demand for leather, the vast majority of leather exported from Brazil during this time period was likely to be from cows raised on what once was rainforest.
 Today, Brazil is still second only to China in the amount of leather exported. In fact, Brazil is the source of much of the tanned leather that luxury Italian brands purchase, re-tan, re-purpose, and re-brand as Italian leather. Although Brazilian deforestation is down 76% from its all time high in 2004, much of what once was rainforest is still de-forested, and most ranchers continue to ignore the Forest Code the country established in 1965 which mandates that the ratio of trees to heads of cattle must remain at or above 80:20. A 2012 Guardian report finds that most cattle ranches have this ratio inverted.
 It seems that when it comes to deforestation, despite public governmental posturing against the practice exemplified by the nation's 2004 vow to cut deforestation by 80% within 16 years, there is a disturbing amount of consistency in the practice of deforestation. The only polar opposites within the Brazilian leather industry seem to be those seen in the conflict between politicians' publicly made statements and their actions that follow.
For example, a 2009 Greenpeace study found that nearly two and a half acres of Amazon rainforest are lost every 18 seconds to cattle ranch related deforestation. The study further reported that although then president Lula publicly denounced the practice, this massive biome upheaval was sponsored by the dollars of state-funded banks (THERE'S the contrast). Recent changes to the Forest Code have greatly diminished the federal government's ability to enforce the code, and between 2010-2011, deforestation increased by 30%. According to a 2011 Greenpeace report, these changes to the Forest Code will not only prevent the country from achieving its 80% reduction in the rainforest destruction by 2020, but will actually increase the amount of deforestation by almost 50% by the time the deadline is reached. Furthermore, Brazil intends to double its nation's cattle production by the year 2018.
Thankfully, despite the nearly overwhelming homogeneity seen in the socio-political and economic stances taken towards the destruction of Brazilian rainforests, Brazil is still a nation of opposites. Although comparatively diminutive, there do exist groups proposing and providing alternatives to the widespread and short-sighted demolition of Brazilian rainforest- standing as a tiny speck of contrast against over a decade of environmental destruction.
 One such example is the Brazilian Roundtable on Sustainable Livestock (BRSL), a group dedicated to a zero-deforestation future for Brazil's bovine leather industry that seeks realistic approaches to achieving such goals through a comprehensively widespread methodology such as economic incentives offered to those who participate in sustainable means of cattle farming and leather production. The BRSL has just signed an agreement with the Brazilian government that will work towards restoring 37 million acres of destroyed and degraded pastures.
 Brazil may have sharp contrast in close proximity in its social status, economic standing, quality of housing, and even in the colors that comprise its landscapes in satellite photos, but a balanced contrast that sustains a nearly equally sized opposite is something that just does not exist in the area of Brazilian bovine ranching and the deforestation that has become the preferred method of feeding this industry's expansion. If this continues unchecked, then it may not be long before we all see TV reports again of green rainforests reduced to black ash, yellow bulldozers, and white cattle, but this time, these horrific images would be seen via high resolution HD broadcasts. But thanks to the efforts of groups like the BRSL and others like them, there are ways to prevent this regression to total deforestation. In the meanwhile, we must not look away until these nightmares are alive again on news broadcasts, and instead, turn our attention, and the attention of everyone around us, to the development of deforestation-related legislation in the land of stark contrast.