One solution to the fashion industry’s leather waste problem
Tom Tymon and Frank Fox are the founding partners of Sustainable Composites, a company that produces a distinctive leather composite material. The two scientists are based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where they conduct research and development on how to utilize waste leather and save it from landfills.
Fox and Tymon both have degrees from Virginia Tech (chemical engineering and chemistry, respectively). Fox also has a Master’s in physics from Franklin and Marshall, while Tymon attended a post-graduate chemistry program at Old Dominion. Their combined science expertise has led them to partner with Timberland, which will begin making its adult men’s shoes out of their Enspire leather.
Here’s what the duo have to say about waste, recycling and finding a solution.
What projects does Sustainable Composites work on?
FF: Developing recycled leather materials using a range of waste leather feedstocks to meet the requirements for products made with traditional hide leather and other markets.
What inspired you to tackle the problem with leather waste/substitutes?
TT: We became aware of the environmental impact of leather waste and the industry interest in a solution while at Interface Solutions (ISI). This was outside the scope of products in the ISI portfolio, so when we left ISI, we decided to form SCL and develop a solution.
What makes Enspire leather a better alternative to, say, vegan leather?
TT: Enspire leather is the only material in which the only fiber used is waste derived leather fiber and whose total leather fiber composition is the same as traditional leather hides. This is the basis for its unique qualitative attributes (feel, etc.) and finishing like traditional hide leather combined with similar or matching physical properties.
FF: Vegan leather is not leather at all but a synthetic faux leather with no leather content. Nearly all other recycled products contain only some fraction of recycled leather and therefore do not feel or perform like leather and require a polymeric coating finish unlike many desirable leather products. Other products use ground leather as essentially a polymer filler, which also does not possess the luxurious attributes or the physical properties of leather.
How does the price of Enspire leather compare to traditional leather?
FF: The price of leather covers a wide range based on quality. Enspire is competitive with common hide leather. Based on price, and because it is produced as a uniform roll or sheet with significantly improved material utilization, it provides a total cost savings of 30% to 60%.
Does your process expand the color/texture options beyond traditional leather?
TT: Enspire has very broad finishing capabilities similar to traditional leather.
What would you say to environmentalists who advocate for banning leather from fashion all together?
TT: Leather is a byproduct of the beef industry; as long as there is a significant industry, the use of leather and recycled leather will have a positive impact.
FF: In many respects, alternate faux leathers would have a less favorable environmental impact than leather and certainly our recycled leather product.
Are there any other partnerships with companies on the horizon?
TT: VF Corp., the parent company of Timberland, is looking at a range of applications within Timberland and their other brands. In addition, we are working with several automotive, furniture, apparel and small leather goods manufacturers. At this point, we are not at liberty to disclose who they are.
What else can companies or individuals do to reduce their waste/environmental impact when it comes to leather?
FF: The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) has issued a report about waste generated in the leather industry. The largest sources are cuttings resulting from the conversion of hides into consumer products. Worldwide, this amounts to about 0.5 pounds for every person in the world or over 3.5 billion pounds per year, so recycling the cutting waste would have a large impact.
What is in store for the future of Sustainable Composites?
TT: We are continuing to develop and expand the technology to make a broader range of recycled leather products with enhanced properties.