Down to Earth

Oil pollution: A 'hairy' situation

© France24

Exxon Valdez 1989, Deepwater Horizon 2010, Russian Arctic 2020 — these oil spills will forever be remembered as exceptional environmental disasters. Yet, each year, our waters suffer from oil-based pollution on a smaller scale. One hairdresser in the south of France is using one of the most overlooked, renewable, natural resources to change things: human hair. How can hair be used to help save our oceans?


When Thierry Gras, a hairdresser in Saint-Zacharie in the Var, realised that hair has an incredible ability to mop up oil, he decided to do something about it.

“When I see the quantity of hair that hairdressers throw away every day, it's 50% of our garbage. It takes up a lot of space and it's a real shame because the material is clean and sorted,” he explains.

In 2015 he established the association “Coiffeurs Justes” which encourages hairdressers to collect cut hair in order to give it a second life. The hair, which would normally end up being incinerated, is now being used to create ‘booms’ or filters which are placed in the water.

Hair is lipophilic, which means it attaches to everything that is made of oil, whether it is petrol or sunscreen. Versatile and reusable, a hair boom can be used 4-5 times before needing replacement.

The Port of Cavalaire in the Gulf of Saint Tropez is now running a pilot project using the human hair booms.

“Pollution in ports is becoming increasingly rare but accidents still happen,“ explains deputy-director, Cyril Grimal. "At the fuel station, the station where we fill up the boat, there’s always a chance a drop or two will fall from the fuel nozzle. That doesn't justify putting up a whole pollution barrier, but even if you can’t see it, when it happens every day across the season, with more than 1200 boats, there’s still going to be some pollution."

Prior to testing the hair booms, the port would remove oil-based pollutants by using industrial, synthetic materials that quickly become waste. Using hair as pollution "barriers" offers an environmentally friendly and cost-effective alternative.

“Once we have shown that it’s satisfactory, that it is economical, and that it meets the three pillars of sustainable development we think that we will convince a lot of ports and the idea, afterwards, is to try this in as many marinas as possible in France and even internationally,” he concludes.


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