If any of you have ever heard me talk about hair and its many uses, you’ll know how excited I am to be writing this. As a hairdresser, we’re already pretty obsessed with what hair can do – how it can make someone feel, its creative opportunities and never-ending potential for business (people will always need haircuts… just sayin’).
Did you know that hair is used in soy sauce and pizza dough for its amino acids and flavour? Or that a single strand can hold 100g in weight? True! The combined hair of a whole head could support 12 tonnes, or the weight of two elephants. And it can stretch one and half times its original length before breaking.
I could keep going, but hopefully you get my point here… hair is amazing! We know about its incredible chemical make-up, yet it’s still such an undervalued resource.
What Makes Hair So Special?
What makes hair truly special and unlike many of our widely-used materials is its naturally infinite supply. The world will never be without hair. Growing and cutting hair doesn’t harm the environment or deplete other resources to do so (at the most simplistic level of course, when you leave out the salon experience leading to this).
It’s (almost) common knowledge now that hair is great for compost, with many community gardens taking advantage of salon donations or budding horticulturalists asking their hairdresser to keep clippings for their rose gardens. And this is awesome! But it can go much further, we just need to be clever about it. We grow hair to keep us warm and protect us from the elements, so why aren’t we spinning it into fabric and making our clothes from it?
The problem is that most people are grossed out by any hair that isn’t attached to its owner, which I find fascinating! Think about it. Hair on someone’s head – happy to braid it, colour it, admire it, fix it for a friend. Random hair on a table/in your meal – germs! Instant panic! But what changed when it came loose from the head?
A few years ago, here at Sustainable Salons, we picked up a little-known use for hair and began researching a commercially-viable way forward for an amazing product… it’s called the Hair Boom. In 2010, there was a devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; a rig exploded leaking oil into the ocean at a rate of 795,000 litres a day! This sparked an effort by hairdressers, barbers, pet-groomers and livestock farmers all over the world who sent in hair clippings that were stuffed into nylon stockings and placed along beaches to soak up any oil that washed ashore.
The Hair Booms didn’t save the day in that instance, but we believe they definitely can if developed properly. We teamed up with Masters student Rebecca Pagnucco at the University of Technology Sydney; her research questioned whether hair could do a better job at adsorbing oil spills than the chemical dispersants and synthetic booms that are currently being used for these disasters. And of course, would hair be more environmentally-friendly?
And it’s good news so far! Rebecca’s report at the end of the year showed that hair is more efficient at soaking up oil than existing commercially-available materials, and it can withstand a greater number of reuse cycles making it a more sustainable option. Interestingly, she also confirmed that hair is not actually readily biodegradable, which means Hair Booms can be stored for long periods ready for any emergency. Disposing of Hair Booms after an oil spill was also a key factor – Rebecca was able to point to overseas research that fixes bacteria to the surface of hair causing the oil to break down. This allows the Hair Boom to be composted in commercial-grade facilities, which completely eliminates the hazardous waste disposal problems we have with the options currently cleaning up our oceans.
Did I mention that hair supplies are infinite? Just checking.
Our Research Continues
Our Hair Boom research continues with two new UTS researchers, Dr Megan Phillips and student Juliette Kidston-Lattari. In an exciting twist, we’ll be taking the boom research from sea to shore! Megan and Juliette came across a sub-category of oil spill products that target spills on land… and so far, these products are all plastic-heavy.
Land oil emergencies can come from things like trucks spilling oil, industrial leaks and construction site disasters… and all of this just seeps into our soil. If we can find a way to use Hair Booms on land, then we can eliminate the contamination, the plastic waste and the hazardous disposal problems.
There’s a lot of work to do in this space, plus we’ll be amping up the ocean Boom research as well! So, if like me you can’t resist a hairy tale, stay tuned to our social media and newsletters for research updates.
Hair may be as old as the Earth, but it’s the futuristic resource we haven’t quite mastered yet. If there’s one industry that can change that, surely it’s ours.