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Several times I've heard of people supporting leather against non-animal alternatives, saying that since animals are killed for meat we have a lot of skin to use and that it would be bad not to use it.

From this point of view we are led to draw the conclusion that using the skin is a better - in the sense of enviromental impact - option than disposing it.

But is this the reality?

Production

Skin is not ready to use just after the slaughter, but it has to undergo a manufacturing process which has a high environmental impact, mainly due to the use of polluting chemicals (chromium, cadmium, lead, arsenic, cobalt, etc.) in the tanning sub-process and to the air pollution (hydrogen sulfide and ammonia) in the dehairing and deliming sub-processes.

Moreover, these processes require large quantities of water and, especially in developing countries, the waste are discharged into rivers polluting not only water but also soil (read about the environmental disaster in Kanpur, India).

Disposal

I want to clarify that the question is about the disposing of raw skin, since the main objective of the discussion is to find out which choice about the skin, just after the killing of the animal, involves a greater enviromental impact: disposal or production?

So I'm not interested in the disposal of leather products, which I guess is even more polluting.

Unfortunately, beside the fact that leather biodegrades slowly - taking up to 40 years to decompose - I know nothing about the disposing of raw skin. This is due to the fact that when searching for information about it, all results are about the disposing of leather products instead.

Maybe it could be used to create compost?

p.s. I hope this is the correct place to talk about this, if not feel free to suggest me a more suitable place.

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Skin rots more slowly than other body parts but less slowly than bone. If buried, a raw hide would turn into beneficial compost in a fairly short time, in fertile productive soil around two years or less. So there is no problem of disposing of parts of an animal that we don't eat. Blood and bonemeal is a valued preparation for garden fertilizer, and is especially loved for use on roses.

There are several different processes used to tan leather to make shoes. The simplest is to dry the hide on the side of a shed after scraping off all the softer tissue. Moccasins used to be made this way often without the need to remove the hair. The old tanning factories used slightly more sophisticated methods, and you could smell them for half a mile. I doubt whether they were using harmful chemicals then. It is only the modern production of leather which uses harmful chemicals and this is only to speed up the process, and make it easier to dye and waterproof the leather, (and possibly also to stop the smell) and these unnatural processes could be dropped.

So whether you use the skin as fertilizer or natural shoe leather, it is potentially better for the environment than plastic. Use your rawhide to make moccasins or bury it to fertilise your garden, and it will be very beneficial to the environment. I didn't fully explain the tanning process which need not and should not involve poisonous chemicals. In order for leather to be pest free and remain supple it is steeped in a solution of tannin which comes mainly from tree bark, and then is stretched and worked on to keep it supple. The only process left then is dyeing and this should be done with natural dyes.

Also, to waterproof it people used to use beeswax. A frequent application of wax was always used for shoes and furniture to keep them from cracking and to keep them looking good. It was called polishing, or using elbow grease. Those were the days when pollution was almost unheard of.

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