Your hair is surprisingly recyclable. People generate a staggering amount of hair waste—salons in the U.S. and Canada toss out some 31.5 tons a day. But what if that discarded hair didn’t have to be waste?
Nanako Hama gets a lot of mail. Mostly from strangers who live in her home city of Tokyo, but many packages also arrive from further afield in Japan. In lightly padded envelopes, they send locks of their hair—long, short, dyed, relaxed, permed—hoping to recycle it.
People generate a staggering amount of hair waste—salons in the U.S. and Canada toss out some 31.5 tons a day, and that figure is sevenfold higher in Europe. Nearly all of that waste ends up in landfills and incinerators, where it can release harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
But hair, proponents say, possesses so many useful properties that it’s a shame to simply toss it out. Which is why people all around the world, like Hama, have been collecting hair and finding innovative ways to recycle it, from weaving it into mats for mopping up oil spills to liquidizing it for use as a fertilizer.
“When you have hair on your head, it’s really important. But when it falls or you cut it, it suddenly becomes garbage,” says Hama. “Hair can be transformed into something really valuable.”
Hama is part of the San Francisco-headquartered nonprofit Matter of Trust (MoT). Members work at more than 60 hubs dotted across 17 countries, using machines to felt hair donated from local salons and individuals into inch-thick square mats roughly 33 inches across. The mats are then used to clean up oil slicks.
Hair is particularly well-suited for this, says MoT cofounder Lisa Gautier. “That’s because its rough sort of scaly outer layer lets oil cling to it.”
More specifically, hair is made of 95 percent keratin, and it’s this fibrous protein that mediates hydrophobic interactions—in other words, “oily stuff sticking together,” says Glenn Johnson, a materials scientist with the U.S. Air Force, who works with MoT to help develop and test the mats.
“Plus, hair has a large surface area,” says Megan Murray, an environmental scientist at the University of Technology Sydney, in Australia. In a 2018 study, Murray found that buffers made of recycled human hair could adsorb 0.84 grams of crude oil onto its surface for every gram of hair—significantly more than polypropylene, a type of plastic that’s typically used to clean up oil slicks.
MoT’s mats have been used in major oil spills, including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 2007 Cosco Busan incidents. Later this year, Hama’s team will deploy their mats in Niigata City, some four hours north of Tokyo, where more than 300 leaky wells remain in an abandoned oil field that once boasted the country’s largest oil production.
(Excerpt from ‘Your hair is surprisingly recyclable’, nationalgeographic.com, 2023)
Why do people from around the world send locks of their hair to Nanako Hama?