28 February 2017

Make an apron from a couch (not a cow)

Tyson spends a lot of time in his shed and wanted a decent work apron.

After pricing both pre-made aprons and commercially available leather, it was looking like an expensive project. But then our neighbourhood had bulk waste and the problem was solved.

Given the number of leather couches we have seen on verges in the past six months, it seems there is at present a cultural trend to chuck them out. Perhaps the leather is irredeemably cracked or worn - but almost always only on the front. The back is often nearly two square metres of undamaged leather.

This provided all the leather Tyson needed to craft himself a beautiful apron, complete with clips salvaged from an old back pack.

Initial Time: Cutting leather from the couch down the road was a lot quicker than getting to a shop to purchase new material. Making a hand-crafted apron took many days.

Initial Cost: Two reels of heavy-duty thread and one pack of rivets (approx $15)

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Zero (and a LOT cheaper than buying new leather!)

Impact: Lets be honest - this action was motivated by convenience and finance, along with our commitment to recycle/ upcycle wherever possible. I won't bore you again with the figures about how much waste Australians make, but this took a big piece of leather out of landfill.

I have since done a little investigation into the environmental impacts of leather production and it seems this choice was also 'green' on several other counts. (As I am not ethically opposed to the killing of animals per se, this is not one of those counts for me, but it needs a mention as I know it is a deal-breaker for many others)

Firstly, tanning of leather involves toxic chemicals. I haven't found a solid source explaining what chemicals are used, but various (anti-leather) sites suggest formaldehyde, azocolorants, pentachlorophenol, lead, chromium, cyanide, arsenic, sodium sulfide, sodium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulfite and dimethyl amine (along with several other scary sounding compounds that when I looked them up turned out to not be toxic). Several of these are bioaccumulative heavy metals, building up in the bodies of tannery workers, the land on which tanneries are sited and the waterways that tanneries feed into. At the lower end of health concerns are skin and respiratory complaints (and that tanneries smell really bad); at the higher end are risks of blindness and up to 50% higher rates of cancer.

Then there re human rights concerns about the conditions that workers are under while producing leather - much of which reportedly comes from Bangladesh, where protections for workers are acknowledged to be poor. Many leather workers are children.

There are also concerns about excessive water use, especially when linked to also polluting waste water in ways that do not allow it to return safely to the ecosystem.

Cattle raising brings its own sustainability concerns (It should be noted that this relates particularly to more intensive forms of farming, which are less common in Australia's cattle industry, although animal rights groups believe the use of feedlots is on the increase here also). And although leather is a by-product of meat production, it is not a waste product. As meat consumption is in decline while leather consumption is increasing, it is likely at some point animals will be raised primarily for their skins rather than their meat.

There are also environmental concerns with faux leather, not least being its use of petrochemicals. Also, as it generally wears much quicker than leather, it becomes waste and needs replacing more regularly than leather products.

Both real and faux leather have the perpetual issues of energy use and pollution in production, transport, packaging and retail.

When I searched for 'recycled leather' I found either Pinterist craft ideas for reusing scraps, or options for commercially pulping scrap leather to roll into a new semi-leather product. All good, but meanwhile great big pieces of good leather are going into the bin with each bulk waste collection, as couch after couch is crushed and carried away. Get out there with your Stanley knives people and rescue some leather*!
(*from discarded couches that are clearly too worn out to be reused as couches)


A whole website dedicated to sustainable leather - talking chemicals, supply chains, waste, etc

Human Rights Watch report on tanneries in Bangladesh

Guardian article discussing environmental impact of leather vs faux leather

Shop Ethical Guide on issues in leather (although mostly quoting straight from PETA website)

RSPCA stance on leather

Someone else's blog considering these issues

Info for businesses wanting to recycle leather