Creating value from the meat industry’s waste

Research by the Leather and Shoe Research Association (LASRA) has been awarded a Gold Status by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment for exceeding excellence and impact.

By finding new uses for co-products from the hide and skins processing industry, the team at LASRA have successfully reduced the amount of waste. A large amount of materials that would have been destined for the landfill, has been diverted and turned into useful products and revenue streams for New Zealand businesses.

Geoff Holmes, Director at LASRA says that initially, the team carried out a survey of industry because they weren’t aware how large the individual waste streams were in the industry.

“The numbers were huge; we’re talking tonnes and tonnes of waste being sent to rendering, composting and landfills each month. One company was telling us they had over 660 tonnes of waste per month. We knew there was something we could do to divert these products.”

Research Scientist Dr. Yang Liu is seen here analysing the biodegradability of footwear during the various phases of its breakdown.

Above: Research Scientist Dr. Yang Liu is seen here analysing the biodegradability of footwear during the various phases of its breakdown.

Once aware of the breadth of the issue, the team set off in 4 directions with their research. Firstly, to create a biodegradable leather, secondly to turn waste into pet food, thirdly seeing if the waste could be used in a medical capability as wound dressings for animals and lastly could constituents of hides and skins be used as a post-operative therapeutic treatment.

In each direction, the team found success.

“The process of making leather is turning something that will rot into something that will not. So, creating biodegradable leather sounds counterintuitive.”  

“We’re challenging the current knowledge in the industry. We see that leathers can biodegrade very rapidly, under the right conditions, and are looking into what this means,” says Geoff.

However, part-way through the project, the team were faced with a rapid shift in the type materials, including whole skins, being sent to landfill.

“When the waste stream mix changed, and the volumes increased significantly, we had to address this through our work and act a bit like a refinery,” says Sujay Prabakar, Science Leader at LASRA.

Lower value waste could be converted to pet food, while higher value waste was diverted for the team’s research in medical uses. For example, in collaboration with the Vet School at Massey University, the team have patented a collagen-based medical device suitable for wound dressing on animals.

The team’s work is highly collaborative, partnering with Universities, Crown Research Institutes, and local and international organisations.

“A large proportion of the world’s medical collagen originates in New Zealand. We have no foot and mouth, no anthrax, no mad cow or similar diseases. We’re seen as the premiere source for medical collagen worldwide,” says Geoff.

“We’re supporting local groups working in the fledgling domestic medical field, using our developed collagen analytical toolbox to ensure their products meet international requirements.”

Dr. Preet Singh, Massey University and Dr. Sujay Prabakar, LASRA at the Massey University Deer farm

Above: Dr. Preet Singh, Massey University and Dr. Sujay Prabakar, LASRA at the Massey University Deer farm

To do this research, LASRA received $2,400,000 in 2017 through the Partnerships Scheme, administered by MBIE.

Sujay says that government funding is important as it ensures the team can do research with higher risk, and longer-term outcomes.

“The industry needs someone to look 10 years into the future and develop innovations and new solutions, otherwise it will stall. Without the support of government, the industry wouldn’t have been able to advance its knowledge as fast as it has, save tonnes of valuable material from going to waste, and generate new revenue streams.”

LASRA’s work has provided many spillover benefits for the entire industry. The knowledge within the industry has grown and businesses are now exploring new and innovative ways to productively use material that they used to think was waste. The work will continue even once the Partnerships project has finished.

The Leather and Shoe Research Association is an independent research organisation that supports New Zealand’s skin and hide industry. LASRA guides and supports the industry’s vision for sustainably produced premium quality hides and skins for export.  All of LASRA’s work is on waste and byproducts of the meat industry. There are no animals raised solely for their skin or hide in NZ.

The LASRA team

Above: The LASRA team