Human hair is being used to clean up oil spills

CNN  — 

Lisa Gautier receives nearly a dozen parcels of human hair every day. This would be unnerving for most, but Gautier knows that the blonde and brunette locks, and all the other shades, will become something wonderfully “green.”

With her San-Francisco-based non-profit organization Matter of Trust, Gautier turns donated hair into mats used to soak up oil spills on land, and booms (long tubes) used for spills at sea.

A standard way to clean up oil from land is to use mats made from polypropylene. But polypropylene is a non-biodegradable plastic, and producing it ultimately means more drilling for oil.

Hair, by contrast, is an environmentally friendly resource that can soak up around five times its weight in oil, according to Matter of Trust, and though it doesn’t quite grow on trees, it is abundant. “There are around 900,000 licensed hair salons in the US,” says Gautier. “They can each easily cut a pound or so of hair a week.”

“Our project is to divert this from landfill,” she adds. “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.”

A hair-raising issue

Oil spills can contaminate drinking water, endanger public health, harm plants and wildlife, and damage the economy.

In 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded 175 spill incidents at sea and on land in the US alone, and globally, around 10,000 metric tons of oil were lost to the environment from tanker spills. According to Matter of Trust, when just one quart (around a liter) of oil enters the water supply, 1 million gallons of drinking water can be contaminated.

This year, there have been major oil spills in Thailand and Peru, together amounting to over 513,000 gallons of oil.

Human hair and animal fur is sent to Matter of Trust's San Francisco warehouse, and made into mats for cleaning up oil spills.