Hair a 'magical, yucky' solution for oil spills

Mats and booms made from human hair absorb oil better than nylon-based products but they've been held back by the "yuck factor."

Hair mats 'magically fast' at controlling oil

Lisa Gautier believes she may have found the perfect material to sop up spilled oil, if only people would get over what she calls the "yuck factor."

The material is natural, plentiful and free because it's "dangling in front of your eyeballs," says Gautier.

This perfect material is human hair.

Gautier, head of San Francisco-based charity Matter of Trust, has a mission to gather the hair cut and swept up in beauty salons, and turn it into mats and booms that absorb and contain oil spills.

"It's so magically fast, and much better than the nylon-based products," Gautier said. "There's so much surface area on hair, so many nooks and crannies."

However, an aversion to handling waste hair has kept hair mats in relative obscurity since they were invented by Alabama hair stylist Phil McCrory in 1990, says Gautier.

"There is a yuck factor in working with human hair," she says.

Donors sign up

That may be about to change, thanks to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Since BP's well began spewing 5,000 barrels a day, Matter of Trust has signed up 90,000 donors, up from 35,000 last month.

From Florida to Louisiana, environmental organizations and individuals are holding "boom-construction" parties, where human hair is stuffed into nylon pantyhose to make kilometres of oil-containing booms.

Hosiery companies have got on board, with Hanes donating 50,000 pairs of pantyhose. At least 15 hair collection sites have been set up in the Gulf Coast region.

And Canadians are getting involved too.

Toronto-based Green Circle Salons held a hair collection event this week and plans to ship about 450 kilograms of clippings to New Orleans, where volunteers will turn the tresses into oil booms.

"Hair attracts oil and it repels water, and it's a natural material that's otherwise going into landfills so we see the opportunity to divert it into something that is more sustainable and that makes sense," said Shane Price, president of Green Circle, which provides environmental consulting to beauty establishments.

Beauty supply firm Redken is picking up the costs of transport, and Price plans to purchase carbon offsets for the shipping factor.

"Personally, I look at it as a hair fibre, and that removes the yuck factor," said Price, who gets why people think hairbooms may look gross. "To me it just feels like a fibre because it's all cut into short pieces."

Gautier also understands that many people are grossed out.

'Giant hair sausage'

One hair-boom maker told the New York Times the result looks like "a giant hair sausage. It's very nasty looking."

But Gautier is hoping they can get over it.

"I have all these people dealing with oil spill cleanups, which is really yucky, and they're afraid of the hair," she says with a chuckle. "I'm like, C'mon everyone. Reach up and touch the top of your head."

Hair works so well as an absorbent because a strand of hair is composed of scales that vastly increase that surface area that oil clings to. A single kilogram of hair can collect up to two litres of oil.

Hair mats are made by sewing hair into a flat square about the size of a door mat. A video shot by Matter of Trust shows a cup of oil poured into a fish tank being almost completely absorbed by a hair mat within minutes.

In February, Gautier had 8,200 kilograms of hair stored in a San Francisco warehouse, awaiting use, and easily that much in the wings if she had the room. Thousands of kilograms of hair have been donated from around the world, but Gautier isn't keen on shipping hair across continents.

"We would love for people in Canada to consider warehousing hair," she said, adding that municipalities and automotive shops could use hair mats the way they currently use rags for cleanup.

Prior to the BP spill, most of the hair mats made by Matter of Trust has been given to local crews for small emergency cleanups. The mats got a boost in profile in 2007 when volunteers used them to help sop up oil spilled when a cargo ship sideswiped the base of the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

Price signed on to the Matter of Trust hair mat mission a year ago and has since opened a storage facility in Cambridge, southwest of Toronto. Twice a week, he collects assorted recyclable materials, including hair from about 50 clients around Toronto.

He's been amazed at how enthusiastically salons have received his idea to hand over excess locks.

Cut of the profits?

"When I walk in the door, a lot of times people say, 'What are you selling?' I say, 'We're not selling anything. We'd actually like to pick up your hair.' The jaw kinda drops open and you get this reaction, where it's like, 'Shut up! Get out! No, sit down!' You sit down and have a great conversation and people are excited," he said.

Price is also working with biologists at the University of Guelph to see how hair could be used in agriculture. It might control weeds, and there are anecdotal reports that spreading hair around keeps squirrels, raccoons and deer away.

At this point, a profit-producing hair mat business is a distant dream.

Gautier is just hoping to get to the point where hair mats become a go-to item for emergency spills, although she envisions commercial possibilities. "Every household should have a hair mat in a pan underneath their car," she said.

Price, meanwhile, sees hair mats fitting into his business of greening up the beauty industry.

"I dream about hair," he said. "We see that within next short while we'll be able to something with hair that will make a lot of sense for everybody."

Outside Toronto, a handful of salons across Canada have signed up with Matter of Trust.

Gloss Salon in Vancouver produces about a garbage-bag's worth of hair daily, and owner Ceanne Chow took up Gautier's hair mat challenge.

"We're on the list for any oil emergency," said Chow.

But storage is a big challenge, and in a year of waiting her salon has yet to receive a request for hair. Still, Chow says she believes in Gautier's "very worthy cause."

"Who doesn't want to help out?"