Cutting Hair for a Cause: Recycled Tresses Are Made Into Mats That Sop Up Spilled Oil

Cutting Hair for a Cause: Recycled Tresses Are Made Into Mats That Sop Up Spilled Oil

The aspiring stylists at Paul Mitchell Schools want your hair during Earth Week -- and not just to practice their art. They'll be giving any shorn locks to a novel environmental organization that recycles hair into highly absorbent mats for use during oil spill cleanups.

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From April 20 to 24, the nearly 100 Paul Mitchell Schools in the U.S. are offering $10 to $15 haircuts and are donating the clippings to Matter of Trust in San Francisco. The decade old nonprofit has been in the business of fashioning recycled hair into products that soak up spilled oil for the past seven years.

It takes about a pound of recycled hair to make a hair mat that's a foot square and half an inch thick, said Lisa Craig Gautier, who established Matter of Trust with her husband, Patrice Olivier Gautier.

A mat of recycled hair. Images of mats and booms made from recycled hair courtesy of Matter of Trust.
"A mat that size can soak up a quart of oil," Gautier told us today, "and it can be wrung out and used up to 100 times -- as long as there's no sand in it."

That's great because each of the Paul Mitchell Schools can yield as much as 5 pounds of hair a day, said a spokeswoman for the brand.
Each Paul Mitchell School can yield as much as 5 pounds of hair a day. Images of stylists in training courtesy of Paul Mitchell Schools.
The brand contributes to several nonprofits ranging from environmental causes such as forest preservation to groups that help the ill and the people who care for them. Individual schools also lend their support to various concerns, but this is the first time that all of them will be shipping their daily haul of discarded hair to a recycler.

"We're all very, very excited about the initiative," the spokeswoman told GreenBiz.com.

Matter of Trust will take human hair of any type -- straight, curly, permed, straightened, processed, dyed -- "but only HEAD hair, please!" says its website.
A volunteer holds up an oil-soaked hair mat used in a beach cleanup after the Cosco-Busan spill. Images of mats and booms made from recycled hair courtesy of Matter of Trust.
Matter of Trust's mats and booms are used by volunteers and others at cleanups. The booms are made by stuffing hair clippings into donated nylon stockings and are used to help ring spills into a confined area.

Volunteers wielded the mats onshore in San Francisco after the container ship Cosco-Busan collided with a pylon of the Bay Bridge in 2007 and spilled thousands of gallons of bunker fuel.

The mats are also used to line tarps and holding areas for oil-sodden birds, seals and otters as they're cleaned up following spills.
Matter of Trust also makes booms by stuffing recycled hair into donated nylon stockings. Images of mats and booms made from recycled hair courtesy of Matter of Trust.


Right now, Matter of Trust has about 15,000 pounds of hair in its warehouse and always welcomes more, said Gautier.

She and colleagues also would welcome ideas on how to update the manufacturing process for making the mats -- which is basically like creating felt on a large scale. Knitters do this on a small scale by wetting down their handiwork and tossing it into a dryer, usually with a tennis ball, to create a matted texture. In the mat-making process, wet hair is jostled vigorously and then repeatedly pierced by machinery with tined surfaces until it becomes matted.

"It's a very simple, Old World sort of process," said Gautier. But very few textile manufacturers who do that sort of thing remain in the U.S. Seventeen have closed up shop -- moving elsewhere or getting out of the business entirely -- after being battered by the economy, and the two that are left work mostly with oil-based materials, she said.

For $30,000, used equipment -- marked down from $500,000 -- can be bought for the felting process. But that wouldn't be the smartest investment, because the resources for repairs and replacement parts are almost non-existent, Gautier said.

"And when it breaks, we'd have a 3,000-square-foot paperweight on our hands," she said.

So, in addition to hair, "what we're really looking for is innovation," Gautier said.

"We're determined to figure out a process so this can be a green business and a green industry, here, in the U.S.," she said. "I think the answer is out there -- we just need to find it, or it needs to find us. "

Images of stylists in training courtesy of Paul Mitchell Schools.

Images of mats and booms made from recycled hair courtesy of Matter of Trust.