Washington (AFP) May 9, 2010
One day, it was the flowing locks on a client's head; the next it was being stuffed in women's nylons and on its way to help soak up the oil that has begun to wash ashore on the US Gulf Coast.
People from around the world have been giving the hair off their heads, the fur off their pets' backs, and the tights off their legs to make booms and mats to mop up the oily mess spewing out of the sunken BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil platform which is lying on the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico.
"People from France, England, Spain, Brazil, Australia, all over Canada and the United States have signed up," Lisa Gautier, co-founder of the Matter of Trust charity which links up recycled goods -- like hair -- with causes that need them, and is coordinating the collection of hair, fur and tights for the oil slick.
"There are 370,000 hair salons sending hair, 100,000 pet groomers, alpaca and sheep farmers, and the other day we had a huge group of transvestites, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who donated their very long nylons," Gautier told AFP.
US nationwide pet supplies chain Petco joined the effort on Friday, as oil began to wash ashore on Louisiana's beaches.
"We have nearly 1,000 grooming salons across the country and think we can ship up to a ton of fur a day. We can make a real difference with this," Petco spokeswoman Brooke Simon told AFP.
Matter of Trust was getting some 450,000 pounds (204,000 kilograms) of hair or fur coming in every day as of Friday and 50 people or companies signing up every minute.
"All the countries that do not have a natural fibre recycling system are looking at this and responding. Our phones are blowing out," said Gautier.
At the Michael Angelo Hair Studio in Tampa, on the Florida Gulf Coast to the east of the oil slick, staff are sweeping up all the hair clippings that fall on the floor each day, boxing them up and sending them to one of 15 warehouses where the hair will be made into absorbent booms or mats to sop up the oil.
Volunteers take the hair and stuff it into nylon stockings -- queen size are best because "they have kind of big thighs and you can put more hair in there," said Gautier -- which are tied together and covered in plastic mesh netting to make an absorbent boom to soak up the oil.
The US Army Corps of Engineers moved hair-based boom production up a notch this week when it worked out a way to make a mile of boom a day with the hair and fur, Gautier said.
These are not the same as the large booms that are being laid in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Those aim to contain the oil as it heads towards the coast and the fragile wetlands of the Mississippi Delta, whereas the hair- and fur-filled booms will be laid on beaches, where they will soak up any oil that washes ashore.
It's believed the idea of using hair to soak up oil came from a hairdresser in Alabama, Phil McCrory, who had an "aha" moment after seeing Alaskan sea otters saturated with oil after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1998.
"I was thinking, well, if the otter was getting saturated with oil, then the hair that I sweep up should do the same thing," McCrory said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) in 2008.
He swept up hair from his salon floor, took it home, "put it in my wife's pantyhose" and then used it to sop up a spill he made in his pool.
"Within a minute and a half, I had the water crystal clear, and all the oil was in the pantyhose loaded with hair," he said.
Peter Lane, president of Applied Fabric Technologies Inc., the second largest oil boom manufacturer in the world, told AFP that people could go ahead and send their hair, pets' fur and tights to Matter of Trust, safe in the knowledge that the organic-based booms and mats do work.
Hair and fur will typically soak up around four to six times their weight in oil, which is not to be sneezed at.
But it's not as good as industrial booms, which are filled with synthetic microfibers that can mop up 15 times their weight in oil, he said, adding that his New York-based company is starting a second shift to step up boom production in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon accident.
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