Hair to the rescue as oil spills blight coastlines

In the town of Brignoles in southeast France, 40 tonnes of human hair are stacked in a warehouse — they’re the discarded locks sent in by salons under a recycling scheme.

After a successful trial in the nearby port of Cavalaire-sur-Mer, the hair is destined to be stuffed into nylon stockings to make floating tubes that will line harbours to mop up ocean oil pollution.

“Hair is lipophilic, which means it absorbs fats and hydrocarbons,” said Thierry Gras, a hairdresser in Saint-Zacharie near Brignoles and founder of the project Coiffeurs Justes (Fair Hairdressers).

Awaiting the green light from labour inspectors and anti-pollution officials, Gras hopes to start large-scale production of the tubes before year-end and so help fight against pollution.

He plans to sell the forearm-length tubes, which can each absorb eight times their weight in oil, for €9 (about R179) each.

At the Brignoles warehouse, paper bags are filled with 2kg of hair, waste from about 3 300 hairdressing salons in France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. The bags are then sent to another site a few streets away, where formerly unemployed people and school dropouts are paid to make the absorbent tubes. Gras plans to reinvest half of the sale price of the tubes in the employment centre.

Each hairdresser on average produces about 29kgs of hair waste every year, most of it ending up in the rubbish bin, according to Gras.

Gras said his appetite for fighting pollution was awakened in childhood by the 1978 stranding of the Amoco Cadiz tanker off France’s Brittany coast. For perhaps the first time ever, human hair was employed in the effort to mop up the more than 200 000 tonnes of spilled oil.

When he grew up and became a hairdresser, Gras said he was shocked to discover there was no recycling facility for hair waste — which can also be used as fertiliser, isolation material, concrete reinforcement or in water filtration.

Gras thus came up with the idea of creating hair-filled oil absorbers and, in 2015, founded his association.

The tubes, Gras said, “can be used in case of a serious oil spill, such as the one in Mauritius recently, but the idea here is to remove micro-pollution on a continuous basis” in ports.

The Japanese-owned MV Wakashio ran aground on a coral reef off Mauritius on 25 July, spilling more than 1 000 tonnes of oil into a protected marine park boasting mangrove forests and endangered species.

In an effort to help, Mauritians cut their hair and hairdressers from abroad contributed too. ABC News reported that Sustainable Salons in Sydney, Australia, sent 10 tonnes of hair to Mauritius. The organisation recycles waste from salons and had 28 tonnes in storage in case of a spill in the Great Barrier Reef.

Mauritians made booms stuffed with straw and hair to act as sponges that suck up the oil.

According to a Nasa study published in 1998, 11 340kg of hair should be able to absorb about 644 000 litres of spilled oil.

And hair is cheaper than synthetic sponges, which themselves create waste.

In Cavalaire, a dozen tubes are in use, serving as a pilot for the harbour project.

Philippe Leonelli, the mayor of the seaside town and chief executive of its port, is happy to have a new method for soaking up the oil leaked from the engines of some 1 100 boats docked in the port.

“The traditional method (using large sponges made from polymer) are products that are not reusable and which we discard” after use, he said. The hair sponges, on the other hand, are washable and reusable “about 10 times”.

“We are all in search of reusable methods so as not to overburden our territory and our land” with waste product storage, added the mayor.

Several river and ocean ports in France have already shown an interest in purchasing the tubes, said Gras. — AFP

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