The World Bank

Tanning and Leather Finishing Industry - Pollution Prevention Guidelines


Courtesy of The World Bank


Pollution Prevention Guidelines to provide technical advice and guidance to staff and consultants involved in pollution-related projects. The guidelines represent state-of-the-art thinking on how to reduce pollution emissions from the production process. In many cases, the guidelines provide numerical targets for reducing pollution, as well as maximum emissions levels that are normally achievable through a combination of cleaner production and end-of-pipe treatment. The guidelines are designed to protect human health; reduce mass loadings to the environment; draw on commercially proven technologies; be cost-effective; follow current regulatory trends; and promote good industrial practices, which offer greater productivity and increased energy efficiency.

Table of Contents

  • Industry Description and Practices
  • Waste Characteristics
  • Pollution Prevention and Control
  • Target Pollution Loads
  • Treatment Technologies
  • Emissions Guidelines
  • Monitoring and Reporting
  • Key Issues
  • Sources

Industry Description and Practices

Hides and skins are sometimes preserved by drying, salting, or chilling, so that raw hides and skins will reach leather tanneries in an acceptable condition. The use of environmentally persistent toxics for preservation of raw hides and skins is to be avoided. In the tanning process, animal hides and skins are treated to remove hair and nonstructured proteins and fats, leaving an essentially pure collagen matrix. The hides are then preserved by impregnation with tanning agents. Leather production usually involves three distinct phases: preparation (in the beamhouse); tanning (in the tanyard); and finishing, including dyeing and surface treatment. A wide range of processes and chemicals, including chrome salts, is used in the tanning and finishing processes.

The tanning and finishing process generally consists of:

  • Soaking and washing to remove salt, restore the moisture content of the hides, and remove any foreign material such as dirt and manure
  • Liming to open up the collagen structure by removing interstitial material
  • Fleshing to remove excess tissue from the interior of the hide
  • Dehairing or dewooling to remove hair or wool by mechanical or chemical means
  • Bating and pickling to delime the skins and condition the hides to receive the tanning agents
  • Tanning to stabilize the hide material and impart basic properties to the hides
  • Retanning, dyeing, and fat-liquoring to impart special properties to the leather, increase penetration of tanning solution, replenish oils in the hides, and impart color to the leather
  • Finishing to attain final product specifications.

Waste Characteristics

The potential environmental impacts of tanning are significant. Composite untreated wastewater, amounting to 20–80 cubic meters per metric ton (m3/t) of hide or skin, is turbid, colored, and foul smelling. It consists of acidic and alkaline liquors, with chromium levels of 100–400 milligrams per liter (mg/l); sulfide levels of 200–800 mg/l; nitrogen levels of 200–1,000 mg/l; biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) levels of 900–6,000 mg/l, usually ranging from 160 to 24,000 mg/l; chemical oxygen demand (COD) ranging from 800 to 43,000 mg/l in separate streams, with combined wastewater levels of 2,400 to 14,000 mg/l; chloride ranging from 200 to 70,000 mg/l in individual streams and 5,600 to 27,000 mg/l in the combined stream; and high levels of fat. Suspended solids are usually half of chloride levels.

Wastewater may also contain residues of pesticides used to preserve hides during transport, as well as significant levels of pathogens. Significant volumes of solid wastes are produced, including trimmings, degraded hide, and hair from the beamhouse processes. The solid wastes can represent up to 70% of the wet weight of the original hides. In addition, large quantities of sludges are generated. Decaying organic material produces strong odors. Hydrogen sulfide is released during dehairing, and ammonia is released in deliming. Air quality may be further degraded by release of solvent vapors from spray application, degreasing, and finishing (for example, dye application).

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