Human Hair Is a Surprising Secret Weapon for Cleaning Up Oil Spills

In a perfect world, we wouldn't need this solution.

A boat works to collect oil that has leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico on April 28, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana.

Chris Graythen / Getty Images

Anyone who has experienced the unbridled joy of a good hair day knows just how powerful a head of hair can be. In the hands of a skilled stylist, your hair can help you boost your self-confidence, express your unique personality, land a new job, and maybe even attract a romantic partner. In the hands of Matter of Trust, however—an ecological nonprofit that collects and recycles waste fibers like hair and fur clippings, fleece, feathers, and laundry lint—your hair might be able to do something even more impressive: help save the environment.

For more than 20 years, Matter of Trust has been collecting hair and fur donations from hair salons, pet groomers, and farmers around the world for the purpose of making “hair mats” that can assist with oil spill cleanups.

Typically, oil spills on land are cleaned up using polypropylene mats that are effective but environmentally problematic. After all, polypropylene is a non-biodegradable plastic that’s made from fossil fuels; using it to clean up oil therefore requires drilling for even more oil. Hair and fur, on the other hand, are nontoxic, biodegradable, renewable, and extremely absorbent. Human hair, for instance, can absorb approximately five times its weight in oil, according to Matter of Trust, which says a pound of hair can soak up a liter of oil in less than a minute.

It makes sense if you think about it: The reason humans shampoo their hair is that it retains oil so well.

“It makes much more sense to use a renewable natural resource to clean up oil spills than it does to drill more oil to use to clean up,” Lisa Gautier, Matter of Trust’s co-founder and president, told CNN in a recent interview.

Gautier established Matter of Trust in 1998 and conceived the organization’s Clean Wave program—through which it makes and distributes its signature hair mats—in 2001 when an Ecuadorian oil tanker carrying 243,000 gallons of diesel fuel ran aground on San Cristóbal Island, which is part of the wildlife-rich Galápagos Islands.

Eager to help with the disaster, Gautier teamed up with hairstylist Phillip McCrory, who had experimented with using hair to soak up oil more than a decade prior, in 1989. Together, they designed mats and oil booms made of human hair and animal fur, which Matter of Trust continues to produce today at its warehouse in San Francisco, and at local hubs in 17 different countries.

A stash of hair booms piled on sand

Matter of Trust

To date, the organization has produced more than 40,000 hair mats and more than 300,000 booms, reports CNN, which says Matter of Trust receives donations by mail; checks them for contaminants like debris, dirt, and lice; then separates the hair and spreads it over a frame, which it subsequently runs through a custom-built felting machine in order to produce finished hair mats.

Matter of Trust’s products have been used to clean up not only high-profile oil spills—including the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released over 160 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico—but also non-emergencies like oil leaks from vehicles and machinery. In both cases, oil can seep into soil and water, which can harm people, plants, and wildlife, according to Matter of Trust, which says just one quart of oil can contaminate 1 million gallons of drinking water if it enters the water supply.

Although it’s an elegant solution, it isn’t perfect. Hair mats can only be used once, for instance, and can only be disposed of through incineration or composting. And in the case of the latter, the resulting compost isn’t suitable for growing food. Also, the mats aren’t very effective at soaking up oil from sand on beaches—although it’s worth noting that polypropylene mats aren’t any better in that regard.

Still, hair mats are a surprisingly effective tool in the fight for a cleaner planet. And because Matter of Trust hasn’t patented its designs, all that’s needed to produce them are hair clippings—of which there are plenty, according to Gautier, who says there are approximately 900,000 licensed hair salons in the U.S. alone, each of which can easily cut at least a pound of hair per week.

“Anyone can make a hair mat,” she told CNN. “It creates green jobs, it cleans water, it reduces waste in landfill, and it’s promoting renewable resources.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Deepwater Horizon – BP Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill." United States Environmental Protection Agency.

  2. "Facts." Matter of Trust.