COLUMBIA — People shampoo their hair because hair collects scalp oil. Local hair stylists are betting hair will soak up oil in the Gulf of Mexico, too.
“Why should millions of pounds of absorbent, natural, renewable hair, fur, fleece clippings go to waste?” states the website for Matter of Trust, the organization spearheading this effort.
Phil McCrory invented the hair boom in 1989 after watching news coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He now works for OttiMat, which makes mats out of human hair to help prevent the damage caused by oil spills.
Lisa Gautier established Matter of Trust in 1998, and one of its many environmental projects is the “Gulf Spill Hair Boom Program.” Volunteers stuff nylons with hair and then cover the boom in mesh. The booms help absorb oil in the water of on the beach.
For videos and photos of the project, click here.
“We had lots of offers, and the Coast Guard has had lots of offers from people around the country collecting hair,” BP spokesman Robert Wine said. “But unfortunately it just isn’t practical.”
According to a news release, BP’s Government and Public Affairs department contacted Matter of Trust on May 21 and informed the organization BP had enough of its own synthetic booms.
BP’s response has not hindered volunteers, who continued to send hair clippings to Matter of Trust.
“It’s our country," said Audrey Ray, stylist at High Maintenance Salon in Columbia. "If we want to keep it clean, then getting that oil up is one of the most important things we can do.”
Municipalities and harbors that have hazardous waste disposal plans in place deploy the hair booms, according to Matter of Trust’s website. Oily booms are either incinerated or disposed in landfills.
The nonprofit organization has 19 warehouses along the Gulf and one warehouse in San Francisco. Lisa Gautier, president and executive director of Matter of Trust, said it has more than 650 volunteers and has received donations from across the nation and 30 other countries.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Gautier said. “The spill just keeps going on.”
Matter of Trust uses the hair, fur and fleece of any length to make booms, floating barriers meant to hold back oil floating on the water’s surface and to protect the shoreline.
Gautier said Wednesday that the warehouses are full, and the organization will shift its focus to deploying the hair booms. The website states there is enough hair to make 25 miles of boom.
Gautier said she visited the Fort Walton, Fla., warehouse, where the sand on the beach was like “powered sugar.” She witnessed the waves there change from blue-green to black.
“I saw a plume come in like a serpent, black wave after black wave,” Gautier said.
It’s images like that which prompted Alexis Albright, a University of Missouri sophomore and Miss Columbia 2010, to get involved. She brought empty boxes to 10 Columbia hair salons in early June and picked up hair-filled boxes a week later.
“We ended up with 12 boxes total,” Albright said. “I was really pleased.”
Albright first heard about Matter of Trust on the radio. She became “fascinated” with the organization and realized collecting hair would be a simple way to help the clean-up effort.
“I know that it’s hard for the average person to help with such a huge crisis without actually going there,” Albright said. “It’s a way for each person to be able to help out a little bit without spending a lot of money or having to go there physically. It was just a unique way to help with the oil spill.”
Rose Ditter, owner of KeLani Salon and Spa, continued collecting hair after working with Albright.
“I think it’s important that we all help in whatever way we’re able to,” Ditter said.
Salon Adair and Spa fills up a couple trash bags a month with hair. Stylist Zachary Dewey tells all of his clients before starting their haircuts about where their hair is going.
The oil spill “affects all of us,” Dewey said. “Every little bit helps.”
Stylists at the Clip Joint’s downtown location have also been saving hair ever since Albright approached them. Laura Cox said the Clip Joint would hold on to hair clippings until Matter of Trust needs them again.
“We just want to soak up the oil as soon as possible,” Cox said. “Everyone knows this is a huge disaster, so anything we can do helps.”