After you get your hair cut at Pitch, a salon in the heart of San Francisco, the stylists will carefully collect the clippings and feed them into felting machines at the eco-hub next door. As you look on, your locks will be turned into hair mats that look like tightly woven felt and will ultimately be used to clean up water pollution. Yes, your former ponytail can help save a pelican.

In 1989, Phil McCrory, a hair stylist in Huntsville, Alabama, was watching CNN coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska while washing a client’s hair in his salon. He knew how easily oil attaches to hair and wondered, what if human hair could be used to clean up oil spills? His salon happened to be close to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, and its scientists confirmed what the EPA later found to be true as well: Hair is great at soaking up grease. Each hair adsorbs three to nine times its weight in oil. Its porous structure is the reason birds and furry sea mammals such as otters are particularly affected by spills: the grease sticks to their feathers and fur.

McCrory’s idea sparked a worldwide movement. After trying various techniques to create hair mats on his own, in 1998 he partnered with the San Francisco nonprofit Matter of Trust. Together, they launched the pioneering Clean Wave program to produce fiber mats from hair collected at salons, fur from pet groomers and even laundry lint. “I was 23 and naïve, and thought, such a good idea — why isn’t it taking off?” Matter of Trust founder and president Lisa Craig Gautier says. A self-described workaholic with a get-it-done attitude, she cold-called Paul Newman who invited her to Connecticut, and his lawyers helped Gautier set up the nonprofit. 

Clean Wave workers sort through donated hair. Photo courtesy

Today, 40,000 hair salons donate their hair clippings in the U.S. alone. “You’re a captive audience of your hairstylist for about 20 minutes every six weeks,” Gautier says, combing her fingers through her brunette mane. “So this works great to raise awareness about the issue as well.” And since human hair is a renewable resource, there’s no shortage of it — if anything, there’s a glut. Each of the 900,000 hair salons and 400,000 pet groomers in the U.S. cut about three pounds of hair or fur per day, a massive amount of natural fiber that gets stuffed into trash bags and hauled off to landfills. At the bright and airy flagship factory in San Francisco, postal carriers drop off packages with hair snippets from 30 countries worldwide daily. 

Matter of Trust’s hair mats have been used in major oil spills, starting with Ecuador’s Mazon rainforest where Texaco (now owned by Chevron) dumped over 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and spilled several million gallons of crude oil between 1964 and 1992. In 2007, Matter of Trust volunteers participated in the cleanup after the Cusco Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. And in 2010, the BP spill of 205 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico sparked an unprecedented response: Within four days, Matters of Trust received three-quarters of a million pounds of fiber, filling 19 warehouses. The EPA called it the largest grassroots mobilization it had ever seen, and Lisa Gautier twice flew to the Gulf to coordinate part of the cleanup herself.

Lisa Gautier. Photo courtesy

Two studies at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, have shown that the hair mats and booms soak up oil just as effectively as conventional solutions. “Conventional methods involve oil-based chemical dispersants and synthetic absorbent booms, essentially using oil to clean up oil,” Gautier says. “They are very toxic. When the synthetic booms break apart, the synthetic pellets spread into the environment. When a hair boom breaks apart, it’s just a natural fiber and thus more planet-friendly.” The hair mats can be washed and reused up to ten times. As a side effect, “the hair mats divert natural fibers from landfills, create sustainable green jobs and clean up our waterways in the process,” Gautier says. “It’s humanity’s solution to humanity’s problem.”

What happens to the saturated mats? “After major oil spills, the hazardous material ends up in landfills or incineration,” Gautier explains. “Landfills are not my favorite.” Matter of Trust has tried to compost used mats, and has found some success experimenting with various fungi, worms and thermophilic composting to turn the hazardous waste into healthy compost. “After 18 months, we got some good compost,” she says, “but it remains a tricky issue.”

Gautier understands some people feel grossed out by the idea of wet hair and grease. “We lovingly call it our serial killer website because on our website you always see clumps of hair,” she jokes. But in reality, the eco-hub is completely dry and clean. “We only do dry felts,” she says.

Using their heads

“What is this place?” asks a giant banner at the entrance of Matter of Trust’s eco-hub before giving the answer: “Here you flow into the possibilities of clean air, clean water, clean energy and ideal materials.” In the factory, volunteers, interns and 23 full-time employees sort through the donations and feed the hair clippings into specialized needle felt machines. The city of San Francisco supports the project by sponsoring seniors with a stipend to participate. School classes visit and participate, as well. The machines are about the size of a large office copier. “It’s a very simple, low-tech solution,” says Gautier. 

Matter of Trust mostly needs hair longer than three inches to produce a tight weave and then uses clippings of two inches or more to fill in the mats. The organization donates super-long strands to nonprofits that make wigs for ill people, like The Little Princess Trust or Hair We Share in New York. “Please don’t send us anything from below the neck!” Gautier half-jokes.

Instead of big oil spills, Matter of Trust now focuses on storm drains and the motor oil leaks from roadways. “50 percent of the water contamination comes from our streets,” Gautier says. The hair mats or booms can be placed around storm drains and act as natural filters, soaking up oil and trapping debris such as cigarette butts. “It’s not sexy, but it is a solution for cities and bus fleets, etc.” 

Hair is collected into booms that can soak up pollution. “It’s humanity’s solution to humanity’s problem,” says Gautier. Photo courtesy

For instance, the Air Force has been partnering with Matters of Trust since 2011 and just ordered another 300 hair mats for a filtration project. “The Hair Force,” Gautier jokes, before turning serious again: “The mats can even be placed under snow plow equipment. They can last a really long time, up to two years or until they’re saturated.” Cities in Texas and New Mexico, and even the Coast Guard have signed on and ordered mats.

Gautier’s vision is to have 300 satellite locations around the world “to avoid the crazy carbon footprint of shipping a natural resource all over the planet.” Ten satellite locations already exist, including in Chile, Japan, Finland, Greece, England, France, Belgium and Spain. “At Matter of Trust Chile, for instance, they created these amazing kiosks where people can charge their phones with reused batteries from old scooters while at the same time donating their hair,” Gautier raves. In Oklahoma, a husky dog rescue participates. In rural areas, alpaca farms and sheep shearers send their surplus. “People are always asking what they can do,” Gautier says. “This is something where everybody can contribute.”

Others have set up their own networks. In Canada, Green Circle Salons are collecting hair clippings from 16,000 “waste warriors.” In France, Coiffeurs Justes have collected 40 tons of hair from 3,200 salons since 2015. They stuff them into booms made from pantyhose that are used in the harbors of the Cote d’Azur or Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. They realized that the hair booms can also soak up sunscreen in lakes and swimming pools. According to NOAA, between 6,000 to 10,000 tons of sunscreen contaminate waters every year and can harm marine life and plants. 

Gautier now experiments with using the hairy solution for soil erosion prevention as well. “The carotids slowly release nitrogen into the soil, acting as a fertilizer. Bugs and snails don’t like to crawl on it. The best part is the rain will go through it but will prevent water evaporation and prevent soil erosion,” she explains.

Finally a host of problems for which we carry the solution on our heads.