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Using Human Hair (and animal fur) to Clean Oil Spills

Updated on April 8, 2013
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I love everything weird and colorful in this world and I try to live a life that will make the world a little better once I'm gone.

Hair/Fur As Cheap and Effective Oil Slick Cleanup

With the oil spill Gulf of Mexico threatening the ecology, people worldwide are watching wishing they could help. Perhaps they don't realize just how much they can. Human hair and animal fur can be used to help clean up the oil and stop its spread. That's right - human hair. Hair collects oil. That's why you have to wash it. Just as it collects oil from your skin, it also collects oil from an environmentally threatening oil slick.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, a hairdresser in Alabama named Phil McCrory noticed how the photos of the otters showed the water right around them to be cleaner that the surrounding areas. He recognized that their fur had collected the oil out of the water. Hair, after all, has a natural tendency to collect oil. He went to work inventing the hair mat, using human hair clippings and a kiddie pool in his yard. He soon realized that one pound of hair can soak up about one quart of oil, and when formed into a sturdy mat, it can be rung out and reused over a hundred times!

(Photo by How Can I Recycle This? / CC BY 2.0)

Hair Soaks Up Oil Spills

Since the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, improvements to how we go about cleaning up oil spills have improved dramatically. Now, with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico we must act on what we have learned from that tragedy and other oil spills that have occurred since.

Hair Booms and Hair Mats - A Hairy Photo Gallery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Hair booms made from donated hair/fur and donated used nylonsStrong mesh covering the hair filled nylon boomA pound of hair can pick up one quart of oil in a minute, and it can be wrung out and reused up to 100 times!Close Up of a HairmatHair mat being used at the San Francisco Bay Area Cosco-Busan Oil SpillPhil McCrory, Inventor of the hairmats and barber with Lisa Gautier, Executive Director and Founder of Matter of TrustVolunteers on Ocean Beach San Francisco use hair mats to clean the oil"We LOVE these hairmats!"
Hair booms made from donated hair/fur and donated used nylons
Hair booms made from donated hair/fur and donated used nylons
Strong mesh covering the hair filled nylon boom
Strong mesh covering the hair filled nylon boom
A pound of hair can pick up one quart of oil in a minute, and it can be wrung out and reused up to 100 times!
A pound of hair can pick up one quart of oil in a minute, and it can be wrung out and reused up to 100 times!
Close Up of a Hairmat
Close Up of a Hairmat
Hair mat being used at the San Francisco Bay Area Cosco-Busan Oil Spill
Hair mat being used at the San Francisco Bay Area Cosco-Busan Oil Spill
Phil McCrory, Inventor of the hairmats and barber with Lisa Gautier, Executive Director and Founder of Matter of Trust
Phil McCrory, Inventor of the hairmats and barber with Lisa Gautier, Executive Director and Founder of Matter of Trust
Volunteers on Ocean Beach San Francisco use hair mats to clean the oil
Volunteers on Ocean Beach San Francisco use hair mats to clean the oil
"We LOVE these hairmats!"
"We LOVE these hairmats!"

Alas, BP Will Not Use the Hair - ...But Others WILL !

So as the story goes, BP (BPs Critical Resources Material Management) contacted Matter of Trust on May 19, 2010, about using the mats and seemed very excited at doing so. With this news Matter of Trust lifted their halt on donations and opened the flood gates for as much hair as possible to be donated.

Then, on May 21, 2010, , another department (Ronald D. Rybarczyk BP Government & Public Affairs) called back with the message (paraphrased), "sorry, they was a misunderstanding in their first call - the hair booms are not needed and won't be used."

BP has made their choice, but the people of the Gulf will not let this resource go unused. Hair booms and mats are in the water now.

  • According to BP, the hair booms are not useful since they sink. Also, they say they have enough petroleum based boom already. As Matter of Trust has shown, hair booms can be made to float with the simple addition of a piece of a foam pool noodle. Also, they sit a little lower in the water than the boom does. Since all that dispersant was added to the oil, a great deal of the oil is suspended just below the surface. The hair booms catch this, while the standard booms allow it to flow underneath. Floating the hair booms, with a noodle, in shrimp bags tied in grid formation has been HIGHLY successful.

    Watch this comparison video of Hair Boom vs. Conventional Boom

  • But wait....the hair will NOT go to waste. Hair booms are being used. Individuals, towns, and other organizations are putting the donated hair to use. They have been approved for use by the Coast Guard.

    Here you can see them in use between piers in Alabama, at a harbor in Fort Meyers FL, Weeks Bay AL.

I'm not a Hair Stylist or an Animal Groomer - What can I do? - What can one average person do to help?

In the US alone, 60 million pounds of human hair are disposed of in landfills each year.

There is a lot of oil that needs to be cleaned, and everyone can pitch in to help this project be successful. Here are a few ideas of how you can use the skills and resources available to you to assist in this great project of cleaning oil spills with hair:

  • Ask your hair stylist what they do with the hair clippings they produce. If they just throw them out, recommend Matter of Trust.
  • Follow Matter of Trust on twitter: @MatterOfTrust

    From time to time retweet something of theirs to spread the word to your followers.

  • Become a fan of Matter of trust on Facebook. Stay up to date on what's happening, and pass it along to your fans.
  • Become a local drop off site. Many people have small amounts to give. Organize a day and time when they can drop it off to be sent in one larger shipment. Perhaps you could get a local group to help you - girl scouts, boy scouts.
  • Contact your local shelter and ask if they recycle the clippings they have.
  • Teachers can encourage kids to brush their pets and bring in the hairs collected. This is also a good opportunity to teach science, global awareness, environmental studies, geography, and empathy. Teachers should check out this resource page
  • Ask your church members to bring in pet hair and old nylons to be recycled for the cause.

Hair Mat with Oil Spots - Photo by Shmooth
Hair Mat with Oil Spots - Photo by Shmooth

Where Do I Send the Hair?

How to get your hair, fur, and nylons to Matter of Trust

The receiving sites are ever changing, because the oil is ever moving. Therefore you must register (for free) to be added to the database for the latest receiving sites. Click here to be added to Excess Access, a company who connects surpluses with needs for the greater good, for a list of current receiving sites for hair, fur, and nylons.

(photo by Shmooth)

Hair Mat Demonstrations

Learn More about the Programs of Matter of Trust

Matter of Trust does more than just hair booms. Learn more here:

Oiled Bird
Oiled Bird

Booms Made From Hair

and recycled nylon stockings!

Human hair and animal fur can be used to make booms. A boom is a barrier that contains an oil slick and stops the spread to the rocky or sandy shore. By simply filling a pair of nylons with hair, a cheap and effective boom can be created. Lining these booms up end to end can make a floating fence that keeps the oil away from the shore, which makes it even more difficult to clean up, and exposes the oil to more species of animals.

It is simple cost effective ideas like this one that make you remember how important grassroots projects are.

(Photo by Mila Zinkova from Wikipedia)

Children's Books on Oil Spills - Fiction and Non-Fiction Books For Kids about Oil Spills and the Lasting Results

Educating the next generation about oil spills is important. Parents and teachers should discuss the current oil spill, and use it as an opportunity to teach about science, the environment, animals, and the importance of caring.

How Can I Financially Contribute to Matter of Trust?

You can contribute financial donations by mail by sending a check or money order made out to Matter of Trust to:

Matter of Trust, Inc.

99 St. Germain Avenue

San Francisco CA 94114

You can contribute using paypal.

You can make a credit card donation by phone to (415) 235-2403.

Be sure to specify exactly where you want the money to go, i.e. Gulf Coast Oil Spill, Earth From Above, the General Fund, or another specific program. If you do not specify, the donation will be put into the General Fund to help all projects.

Earth From Above

Arial Photography of Our Beautiful Planet

Matter of Trust is a sponsor of the Earth From Above project:

Hair boom made from donated hair and fur stuffed into donated nylons

Hair boom made from donated hair and fur stuffed into donated nylons
Hair boom made from donated hair and fur stuffed into donated nylons

How to Make a Hair Boom

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