Growing up by the Belgium coast, Stephanie has always appreciated the sea. After graduating in geography, she started her career as an urban planner before stepping out on her own. She began her startup, Sea Matters whilst working with fishermen and scientists in the fisheries supply-chain. It’s here Stephanie fell in love with fish leather.

Over the past three years, she has been working with artesian designers and materials experts around Europe turning discarded fish skins into leather for accessories and furniture.
However she also saw the down side to fish leather. Making leather, also known as ‘tanning’ is very damaging to the environment. The tanning process is largely the same for both fish, cow and other forms of animal hides.

More environmental way to treat skins

For hundreds of years, tanneries have used large amounts of water because skins are preserved and treated with salt. To remove the salt, water and other chemicals are needed. Whilst some innovations have been introduced, Maes believed there was a more environmental way to treat the skins. That’s when she met investor Frank Vancauwenberghe and artist Piet Van. Together they discovered a more innovative way.

Fish Leather Flask

Their machine – which is currently being trialed in a Spanish tannery Curtidos Badia – preserves the skin without the need for salt. It also removes the natural moisture in the hides making it lighter to transport, thus reducing Co2 emissions.

No more need of salt

“In a normal tanning process, there is a high degree of salt used to preserve the naturally wet skin from decomposing. Our machine eliminates the need for salt so we save 70% of the water normally used in the process, as we don’t need to rinse the salt off the skins. We make the skins lighter before transporting them and this reduces our emissions too. If we succeed, we can really change the leather tanning supply chain”, says Dr. Sander De Vrieze from Centexbel, one of the partners from the project.

Whilst the machine will be used for all types of leather, Maes and her partners are focused on salmon skins during the pilot phase because they are smaller in shape and thinner. The pilot test is expected to be complete by September 2020.

Greater demand for environmental productions

Encouragingly, large retailers are echoing the need for more environmental productions. “Designers around the world are looking for ways to produce leather more sustainability. We’ve had many conversations with high-end retailers who are interested in our process because it reduces their carbon footprint.”

Sea Matters believes the impacts of the coronavirus are yet to have an effect on the pilot of the machine but this could change. “As we’re focused on testing the machine, it’s simply business as usual. Nevertheless the tests are being carried out in Spain so naturally we expect things to slow. That hasn’t damned our spirit and we’re excited about the changes this technology can bring for our planet and the industry.”

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