• An organization in France gathers hair trimmings from more than 3,000 salons.
  • The hair is then used to clean up oil from polluted water.
  • Human hair can absorb up to eight times its weight in oil.
  • It is also biodegradable and can be reused many times.

What happens to hair after it’s been trimmed? Usually, the piles of clippings are simply swept off the floor and discarded.

But if you’re at a salon or barbershop in France, there’s a chance your hair will end up cleaning the ocean. More than 3,000 hairdressers have signed up to the Coiffeurs Justes, an organization that takes discarded hair and turns it into booms that can absorb oil.

Floating sausages

The project is the brainchild of Thierry Gras, a hairdresser in Saint-Zacharie, a small town in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France. Since 2015, he has been recruiting salons from all over France, and now beyond, to recycle waste hair.

Members collect the clippings, bag them up and send them to a warehouse in the town of Brignoles. There, workers who were formerly unemployed, or who left school without qualifications, are paid to stuff the hair into nylon stockings, creating floating sausages that can absorb up to eight times their weight in oil.

These sausages have been used in a successful trial in the harbour at Cavalaire-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean. Now Gras is hoping to expand production, selling each nylon tube for €9 (approximately $11), and reinvesting some of the proceeds in the employment centre where the tubes are stuffed.

Super absorbent

The absorbent properties of hair are well known – after all, billions of dollars are spent every year on shampoos and other products to wash oils out of it. “Hair is lipophilic,” Gras told AFP, “so it absorbs hydrocarbons.” As a child, he remembers hearing stories of hair being used to help clean up after the Amoco Cadiz oil spill off northern France in 1978.

The bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio ran aground on a reef ar Rivere des Creoles
Human hair was used to soak up oil from the ship MV Wakashio off Mauritius, last August.
Image: Reuters

More recently hair was used to mop up oil from the MV Wakashio, a bulk carrier that ran aground on a reef on the island of Mauritius. Locals donated their hair, and packed it in bags with straw and fabric in a desperate attempt to stop oil damaging the fragile ecology of the region.

Hair is superior in many ways to manufactured materials often used to soak up spills. It costs nothing to produce, is biodegradable and there is an inexhaustible supply (hair grows on us at a rate of roughly 1cm a month). It can be washed so that hair sponges can be used again and again.

Hairdressers collecting bags of hair in Saint-Zacharie, France.
Image: Coiffeurs Justes via Facebook

Using hair in this way also stops it from ending up in the trash, where it can cause damage to wildlife. In fact, cleaning up oil spills is just one of many potential uses for hair – from making wigs, weaves, mats and rope, to deterring pests like deer from gardens, and even as a source of amino acids to make cosmetics and pet food.

So next time you get a trim, check where your discarded hair is going – it could be making a small contribution to a cleaner planet.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our oceans cover 70% of the world’s surface and account for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without healthy oceans - but they're more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our oceans means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.