The textile and leather sectors are water-intensive. In the framework of the IED (Industrial Emissions Directive) (2010/75/EU), the Best Available Techniques reference documents (BREFs) for the textile and tanning sectors strongly recommend reductions in water consumption and wastewater discharges, and the identification of alternatives to harmful chemicals, especially halogenated organic compounds used in fire-retardant and water-proofing treatments. Moreover, finishing treatments to provide textiles and leathers with special characteristics, such as water-proofing or antibacterial or fire-retardant properties, are generally wet batch processes that involve high consumption of energy and large volumes of water. Furthermore, these treatments usually involve the use of hazardous halogenated organic compounds, biocides and organophosphorus compounds.
The objective of the LIFE TEXTILEATHER project was to adapt and implement Multiple Laser Surface Enhancement (MLSE®) technology for the treatment of textiles and leather. This technology was originally developed for the Metallurgy sector. It consists of a dry, continuous process that could significantly reduce the environmental impacts of textile and leather finishing operations, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and wastewater discharges, and the use of water, chemicals and energy. The project aimed to demonstrate, on a semi-industrial scale, the technical, environmental and financial feasibility of the MLSE technology. The project aimed to apply the technology to different products from Spanish and Italian manufacturers, and to adapt existing MLSE equipment in the United Kingdom.
The LIFE TEXTILEATHER project demonstrated the feasibility of Multiple Laser Surface Enhancement (MLSE®) technology as a more sustainable alternative for surface treatment of textiles and leather, to provide waterproof, stain resistant, fire resistant and antimicrobial properties. The project demonstrated that the novel approach is technically, environmentally and economically viable. It also delivered new MLSE equipment designs for treating leather items.
The main challenge was to apply the dry and continuous MLSE technology process to leather and textile finishing operations, where wet batch processing is traditionally used. MLSE is a surface treatment based on a combination of laser and high frequency plasma energy sources, which, in the presence of inert gases, produce nanoscale physico-chemical modifications on the surface of the substrate. This applies thin and consistent layers on the surface, thus resulting in an improved material with functional properties. LIFE TEXTILEATHER studied and selected the parameters to be optimised in MLSE technology for the treatment of textiles and leathers of different compositions (e.g. cotton, polyester, cotton-polyester) and animal origins (e.g. bovine, ovine and pig), respectively. These were subjected to diverse finishing and tanning processes, and compared to equivalent items produced using traditional methods. The project established technical requirements for target functionality (waterproofing, fire resistance, stain resistance and antimicrobial properties), according to the intended industrial applications. These technical specifications contributed to the identification of the engineering design parameters for equipment aimed at treating discrete parts, such as hides and leathers.
The project team carried out an environmental impact assessment, which proved that using MLSE technology in textiles manufacture leads to a reduction in energy consumption by 99% and a total reduction of dangerous chemicals, such as perfluorocarbons (PFCs). This results in a reduction of the impact of the carbon footprint by 90%, in comparison with traditional processes. Similarly, in the case of leather treated for waterproofing properties, MLSE treatment eliminates the use of PFC-type chemical compounds, hence reducing the environmental impact of the process. In addition, avoiding this type of chemical in the finishing operation stops the subsequent generation of effluents. The project compared resource consumption of MLSE processes for textiles with traditional processes: for energy use this was 97.39% less using MLSE technology, for water 99.96% less, and for chemical products 99.25% less to obtain fire resistant properties and 96.84% less to provide waterproof properties. All these reductions were significantly higher than foreseen in the project proposal. By decreasing the consumption of water, chemicals and energy, and lowering the environmental impact of the process, the overall costs of producing textiles and leather was reduced. The project team calculated the savings obtained when using an MLSE process, compared to a traditional one, to be 90.78% (from 0.556 €/m2 to 0.051 €/m2) for fire retardant finishing, and 91.26% (from 0.286 €/m2 to 0.025 €/m2) for waterproof finishing.
Reduced consumption of energy and other resources leads to a consequent reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions. The project team calculated the carbon footprint of MLSE process as 0.0526 kg CO2 eq. compared to 3.1286 kg CO2 eq. for the traditional process.
The project contributes to the Industrial Emissions Directive (2010/75/EU)related to Best Available Technologies in the textile and leather sectors.). It is also in line with the Resource-efficient Europe flagship initiative of the European Commission and the Circular Economy Action Plan. Moreover, the technology eliminates the use of hazardous chemicals, such as halogenated organic and organophosphorus compounds and biocides, whose use is restricted under EU REACH and biocides legislations.
By supporting more cost-effective production of high-end products with improved ecological footprint and operating margins, the new technology could bring considerable socio-economic benefits. High-quality, eco-friendly products could be targeted at new market niches, for instance, while European companies could process products only previously manufactured elsewhere due to EU chemical usage legislation. The environmental benefits are expected to improve the general health and well-being of textile and leather company workers, mainly by reducing exposure to hazardous chemicals. Moreover, implementing MLSE systems could create new skilled jobs (operators, technicians and material specialists).
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Communication Plan (see "Read more" section).