Alberto Volcan spent most of his life developing recycling techniques using food scraps. (Yes, there are people who do that.) He registered as many as seven globally recognised patents and most of his inventions use apple scraps that, besides fuelling biogas plants, are used to make paper and leather.
Volcan's apple leather uses 76 percent apple flour, obtained with dehydrated and powdered apple peel and cores; and then combined with water and natural glue. The ingredients are compacted using a pasta roller. He originally collaborated with graphic designer Carlo Busetti, and created a natural resistant and biodegradable bag, which was first presented at Expo Milano 2015. This is the bag which was met with high acclaim, but I confess to having lost the trail of this specific leather after 2015.
The truth about most vegan leather products is that they have dubious provenance and all, that we can find, are actually plastic. Fossil fuel derived plastic. It all starts out very very eco - leftover apple pulp or peel, which is usually thrown away. And of course, no animal products.
To make the leather, the apple waste is dried and ground into powder. This powder is mixed with pigments and a binder and then processed. And it's the binder that is the problem.
The problem is that in order to stop your apple leather turning into apple puree, and to actually look like leather, it needs to be bound with something like a polymer. The term polymer is mostly used to describe plastics, which are synthetic polymers. (Natural polymers also exist like rubber and wood, so while there is every chance the 'polymer binder' is plastic, there is also a miniscule chance it may not be. But you can be very sure it will say so on the label, and you will likely pay a premium for it.)
When buying any kind of vegan leather, you are pretty much always buying plastic. Unfortunately, discovering this fact is tough and apart from the 99% chance it is actually plastic, you apply the unsaid rule and you will still assume the binder is polyurethane. If you are told the percentage that is made up of apple and nothing else, you can be pretty sure the rest is mostly the 'binder'.
Most vegan leather is polyurethane (PU) and some is polyvinyl chloride (PVC). This is why when vegan leather materials are shown, they after say PU - which most people don't understand to be polyurethane. Plastic. Rarely will a list or a product story say, 'plastic'. And you should also know that the making process is extremely chemical-intensive.
This is an example of a leather made from plastic. Technically, the makers are not trying to hide anything as they do tell you that PU is included, but the content is hard at work to give you a totally green story to mask the real not so green story. See the words - how the right words are never quite run out into a claim, while building the backdrop of romantic, responsible, vegan and green.
'A bio-based, vegan leather material derived from industrial apple peel waste sourced from the Italian Alps. The apple peels are dried, powderized and mixed with PU material to create a very durable and eco-friendly vegan leather. We have created bags with this material to support practices that encourage conscious fashion. Our Leather is a USDA Certified BioBased Product with 31% composed of apple peels.'
Another example: 'This new bio-based material saves apple peels and cores from going to landfills and is a harmonious addition to our other eco-friendly options - FSC-Certified wood and cushion fill made from recycled plastic bottles.'(In this case, it's not clear if the product the content refers to is FSC either.)
The truth is that vegan leather is a natural vegan product mixed with plastic. Typically this means it is not recyclable and does not biodegrade.
Eco-Cult, a NYC based sustainable fashion commentator says that there are some more sustainable processings of PU leasther emerging. Their article on vegan leather has a pile of additional information.
'STELLA MCCARTNEY’S “ALTER NAPPA” IS STILL MADE FROM POLYURETHANE, POLYESTER, AND RECYCLED POLYESTER. HOWEVER, THE POLYURETHANE IS WATER-BASED AND SOLVENT-FREE. ON THE MORE AFFORDABLE SIDE, H&M BEGAN RESTRICTING DMFA IN 2007 IN ITS SUPPLY CHAIN AND BY SEPTEMBER 2020 HAD ACHIEVED 79% DMFA-FREE PU MATERIALS.'
Choosing any kind of leather is a tough choice. Vegan leather makers will rightly tell you that using things like apple waste creates less waste and using it as an alternative to real leather also has a lot of advantages. Cows release a lot of methane into the atmosphere, the greenhouse gas that contributes the most to global warming. Livestock farming is often accompanied by deforestation. Furthermore, to tan leather, many harmful chemicals are needed. Formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives and cyanide-based dyes are used in the tanning process. Production for 1 kilo of animal leather uses 16,000 litres of water.
On the other hand, while apple leather is derived from waste apples, most is bound with polyurethane, which is derived from fossil fuels and once mixed with apples, will not recycle or break down.
In the end, it's your choice. Just know the facts so you can shop your values.
Images: Ashoka | Gus* Modern | The Apple Girl