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In France, salons send human hair to help clean up polluted water

Hair at a salon in the Var department in southern France.
Hair at a salon in the Var department in southern France. © AFP / FRANCE 24
2 min

Could human hair be the secret to cleaning up the world's seas and oceans? A group of French hairdressers are using rolls of discarded human hair to soak up oil in Mediterranean ports.

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Coiffeurs Justes (Fair Hairdressers) was started in 2015 by Thierry Gras, a hairdresser from the Var department of southern France, as a way to recycle the vast amounts of hair waste produced in salons each year. It has since expanded to include some 3,300 contributing members.

Gras says the natural properties of human hair make it effective at absorbing oil.

"It's one of the qualities of hair, it's lipophilic, so it absorbs hydrocarbons, that is to say the hydrocarbons stick to it, that's why you can wash it, it doesn't absorb them," he told AFP.

The hair collected from salons is sent to a warehouse and stuffed into nylon stockings to create floating tubes.

A pilot scheme at the nearby port of Cavalaire-sur-Mer has already proved the hair tubes are successful at absorbing the oil from boats that pollute the harbour.

Each tube can absorb eight times its weight in oil and, unlike polymer sponges, they can be washed and re-used up to around ten times.

The ability of hair to absorb oil has long been known.

"The initial idea of cleaning with hair came at the time of the Amoco Cadiz in 1978 when there was the oil spill," said Gras. "It was the Breton fishermen who developed this system in the sense that it was already used in houses to recover the fat – there were sponges made of hair to recover fat in the houses."

More recently, it was used in Mauritius following the oil spill from the Japanese ship the MV Wakashio. Volunteers made makeshift booms stuffed with straw and hair from local salons.

But Gras believes the technique can be used not just in the case of oil spills but to continually clean the world's waterways of oil pollution, including ports and rivers.

"The idea of Coiffeurs Justes is that we can clean up in cases of a serious accident like the Wakashio but the idea is also to recurrently clean up all small amount of pollution," he said.

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