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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Leather Company Greens Up it's Act

Air Date: Week of

Beth Graham of member station WUWM reports on a Milwaukee leather factory with a history of polluting. For most of its career, the Pfister-Vogel tannery simply dumped its toxic metals into the Milwaukee River. But when stricter environmental regulations forced Pfister-Vogel to change the way it disposed of industrial waste, the company began to discover new production and conservation methods that actually saved money.


CURWOOD: Starting in 1922, the freighter Iroquois ferried cargo around the Great Lakes.

(Freighter whistle blasts)

CURWOOD: Today the boat carries sightseers up and down the Milwaukee River and out on to Lake Michigan.

TOUR GUIDE: On the right you see piles of coal used for electricity in the power plant . . . (Fade under)

CURWOOD: The Wisconsin Electric Power Company plant is the high spot of the tour. The boat also cruises by massive granaries and mile after mile of dirty stone factories. In fact, nearly all of the Milwaukee River is lined with industry. The river provides easy transportation, and a handy spot to dump wastes. For almost 150 years one of the largest tanneries in the nation poured huge amounts of toxic metals into the Milwaukee River. Then in 1985 much tougher Federal rules forced the leathermaker, Pfister Vogel, to cut its pollution. But instead of letting the added expense of new rules cut into their profits, Pfister Vogel's managers found a new way to improve the bottom line. Beth Graham from member station WUWM has our report.

GRAHAM: Milwaukee is known around the world for its breweries, but the German immigrants who settled the city in the 1800's were also furniture builders, sausage makers, and tanners. In 1848, the manufacturing plants dotting the Milwaukee River's edge were joined by the new creamy-brick tannery built by Guido Pfister and Frederick Vogel. The company still calls this original five story plant, now nearly 150 years old, home. Here workers process as many as 44,000 cowhides a week into high-quality leather for shoemakers like L.L. Bean, Sebago and Red Wing. A primary ingredient in making leather these days is trivalent chromium, a heavy metal that preserves the hide and gives it leather's characteristic stiffness. And for years, much of the chrome used here was discharged into the Milwaukee sewage system.

BATES: For years they had a very bad image.

GRAHAM: Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District industrial waste engineer Tim Bates.

BATES: You tend to get a bad image when you're discharging a lot of any pollutant to the sewers. Pfister and Vogel is the largest chrome user and chrome discharger in the country.

GRAHAM: Most of that chrome used to end up in sewage sludge - sludge that the district dries and sells as fertilizer. But in 1990 the Federal Government cut its standard for allowable chrome in sludge by half, and there was concern in Milwaukee that the dramatic reductions in chrome standards could cause the industry trouble. Jim Cole is an industrial wastewater engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

COLE: We didn't even know if the tanneries, as businesses, would survive in the city. We had reason to believe that they might but we weren't sure. But we knew that we had to bring the facilities into compliance, so we proceeded very carefully.

GRAHAM: Because of the volume of its business, Pfister-Vogel already had a chrome-recovery system in place, but it was fifteen years old and out of date. Pfister-Vogel parent company US Leather hired a new vice-president for environmental affairs to oversee the redesign of the system. Paul Ericson says that rather than looking to another expensive, end-of-the-pipeline solution, the company decided to re-examine its whole process, from start to finish.

ERICSON: There were some very complicated, anticipated, frequent recipes that just didn't make sense, so you had to basically get back with the people inside the tannery and start asking, why do you do this, why do we do this, and if we did this, what's the impact on production?

GRAHAM: That painstaking research paid off. Today with new technology and re-engineered treatment recipes, Pfister-Vogel captures 85 percent of its waste chrome, and reusing that chrome saves the company a half-million dollars a year. So its million-dollar investment in the new recovery system will be paid off in two years. But in a way that's just the beginning of the story. In looking for ways to reduce its chrome waste, US Leather found other ways to make its production process more efficient and less wasteful. For example, says Paul Ericson, animal fat left in the chrome bath after the leather's been processed is now separated out.

ERICSON: And that's the material that's sent over and then heated and acidified and a very big portion of it recovered as an animal lanolin that is reused in some of the final processes to make the leather soft and pliable.

GRAHAM: This saves the company fifty percent of the cost of its finishing oil. The chrome recovery system also saves the plant one hundred thousand gallons of water each day, reducing its sewage charges seven and a half percent. And, at a suggestion of the Department of Natural Resources, the company's also looking into selling the gypsum and potash produced by its tanning process as potting soil. US Leather officials are aware that all these pollution control and recycling efforts benefit the company's corporate image along with the environment. American shoemakers like Stride-Rite and G.H. Bass are very conscious of the impact their industry has on the environment. The companies now tag their Pfister-Vogel leather products as "environmentally-friendly." If that helps sell shoes, it also helps sell more Pfister-Vogel leather. Ericson says he doesn't know exactly how all these innovations and marketing possibilities will affect his company's bottom line. But US Leather does seem to have learned a valuable lesson.

ERICSON: There's no massive answer to recycling, it's a chemistry there and a chemistry there, but you start accumulating your recycling efforts, you come up to some pretty big numbers.

GRAHAM: Those numbers also look good to the Lake Michigan Federation. The activist group helped Pfister-Vogel in its pollution control and recycling efforts. Regional Director Kathy Vero says she's not surprised by the variety of potential uses uncovered when companies try to reuse and recycle wastes.

VERO: That's, I mean that's exactly the old adage, you know, one person's garbage is another person's treasure. And I think that that's what all these crackdowns in discharge limits are doing, is forcing companies to be innovative and to find outlets for their waste.

GRAHAM: And Vero says the changes at Pfister-Vogel are just one example of how tougher laws to protect the Lake Michigan basin can also be good business policy for the region's industry. Others in the leather industry may be able to benefit from Pfister-Vogel's experience as well. And while Pfister-Vogel has patents pending on its new chrome recovery system, the company says its doors will be open to its competitors in Milwaukee and elsewhere to come in and check out the new technology. And that could be good news for both Milwaukee's leather industry and the city's environment. For Living on Earth, I'm Beth Graham in Milwaukee.



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