With more than 3.5 billion pounds of leather sent to landfills and incinerators every year, two Lancaster scientists are working with global brands to launch recycled leather products.
Over the past five years, Tom Tymon and Frank Fox have spent more than $3 million in research and development to create a patented recycled leather forming process to produce what they term “enspire leather” with their company, Sustainable Composites LLC, formed in 2013.
Their patented procedure uses fibers from leather waste to create products that have the strength, resistance, sew-ability flexibility and overall feel of a high-quality leather product, Tymon said in an interview with Central Penn Business Journal.
Up until the fall, Tymon said Sustainable Composite’s less than 10-person team hasn’t been very aggressive with its go-to-market strategy. But now the startup is working with a network of industry representatives in the apparel and footwear industry to launch lines of recycled leather-based products.
“We’re pretty early in the development of the tech and we’re pretty sure it’s going to explode,” Tymon said. “Our focus is really on collagen leather protein fiber, ways to manipulate and enhance it,” he said.
Tymon, who was vice president of western hemisphere textile operations for Armstrong World Industries from 1996-2000, said the process creates finishes ranging from highly durable finishes for the transportation and furniture industries, to more luxurious finishes for fashion accessories. With the process of creating uniform continuous rolls, often finished in rectangular uniform hides, production yields were dramatically increased, according to Sustainable Composite’s website.
“As the technology evolved and as we began to interface with the market, what we found is that the real winning product would have all the qualitative and physical attributes of traditional hard leather,” Tymon said. “That was a pretty significant technical challenge. But we made great strides toward that and now that’s our product on the market.”
VF Corporation, parent company of the Timberland shoe brand, has provided funding for the startup to develop products that support the company’s sustainability goals. Mike Gass, lead footwear developer of advanced materials for Timberland, said the company’s goal is to have a net positive impact on the globe by 2030.
“By partnering with the team at Sustainable Composites, this fall we were able to introduce our first boots and shoes made using 100% recycled leather,” Gass said in an email statement to Central Penn Business Journal. “This leather is an impressive innovation in terms of both material and process, and an important first step in our journey toward a greener future.”
The main supplier of waste leather for Sustainable Composites is the Wilson football plant in Ada, Ohio, which Tymon said saves Wilson money by transporting the material to his Lancaster laboratory on his dime instead of sending it to a landfill.
Tymon said leather waste has traditionally been recycled to be used as an adhesive, fertilizer and with synthetic materials for mock leather. But his product is unique because “no one’s been able to make a product that has all the attributes that people like in traditional leather” — that is the luxurious feel, the ability to be finished, and have the physical properties for a broad range of applications.
“Getting the combination of those things — physical properties, high strength and having the feel — no one’s been able to achieve,” he said.