The mat and boom system sometimes used to collect oil from ocean oil spills was originally invented by a hair stylist. Phil McCrory, an Alabama stylist, was shampooing an oily head of hair while watching news coverage of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Noticing the oil-covered fur of otters caught in the spill, he began to think about how easily hair collects oil and how stylists shampoo for just that reason — to take oil out of the hair where it has collected. McCrory began experimenting on the floor of his salon, using the hair clippings that fell to sop up oil. Based on his experiments, McCrory invented the hair mat. Today nonprofit organization Matter of Trust works with salons and with McCrory’s company, Ottimat (named after the Prince William Sound otter who inspired it), to come up with a system for cleaning up oil spills all over the world.
Now Matter of Trust is making hair booms and mats in temporarily donated storage spaces and warehouses all along the Gulf Coast. So far 25,000 square feet of space have been donated. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of hair has been sent to 13 locations along the Gulf Coast. Matter of Trust is not picky about what kind of hair it uses — it will take human hair from salons, dog and cat hair from pet grooming salons, fleece sheered from alpacas, and any other kind of hair or fur that you can think of. Volunteers in warehouses, storage spaces, and in some cases, garages, are stuffing the hair into nylon pantyhose to contain it.
In theory, the hair in the hand-packed containment booms could soak up oil from seawater in the Gulf of Mexico. According to Matter of Trust’s president, Lisa Gautier, who was quoted in the May 8 Arizona Daily Star, it takes one pound of hair about a minute to soak up one quart of oil. After a hair mat has sopped up its capacity of oil, it can be wrung out and used again.
Yesterday’s Dallas Morning News, however, reported that BP (the company that operates the leaking oil well) has not verified that it will use the hair booms and mats. BP’s spokesperson said that BP was waiting for “confirmation from the Coast Guard” as to whether or not the hair booms could be used in this case. “Once the Coast Guard makes a decision, we’ll know how to move forward,” the unnamed spokesperson said. For now, BP is using sorbent booms made from polypropylene fibers. Matter of Trust uses hair booms to help clean up small oil spills all over the world, so even if BP does not use the hair booms in the Deep Horizon spill, they can be saved for use in future spills. Volunteers may work on beaches, as well, to help protect beaches from approaching oil, even if the booms are not used offshore.
Matter of Trust has been alerting volunteers that the hair booms might not be used, but volunteers keep coming — and donating hair and nylons — anyway. Matter of Trust’s May 14 press release explains, “At this time, we are simply providing volunteers the opportunity to make hair boom and stockpile them all along the Gulf Coast, in case BP needs them. We’re calling it Plan H (H is for Hair).”
Several of the salons that have been donating hair have planned to donate to Matter of Trust for quite some time, and viewed the Gulf spill as a call to arms. Matter of Trust matches up each salon or other donor with a storage location, and the salons start shipping hair. “We’ll be shipping 30 pounds a week,” said Kerry Hovland, of Frisco’s Von Anthony Salon, in the Dallas Morning News. “If other people join the cause, maybe we can make a difference.” He was shipping his hair to Fort Walton, Florida.
According to Matter of Trust, there are more than 370,000 hair salons in the United States, and each one collects an average of one pound of hair per day.
DeCastro, Lavinia. “Oil spill solution: hair today, gone tomorrow.” Courier Post Online (South Jersey). May 15, 2010.
Gelsi, Steve. “People giving the hair off their heads for oil cleanup.” MarketWatch. May 11, 2010.