Innovative Chileans Use Discarded Hair to Clean Up Coasts, Waterways

A hairdresser works at a salon that collects discarded hair for Matter of Trust Chile, in Santiago on March 26.
Top: Luisana Gil, a dog groomer, works at a shop on June 1. Bottom: A member of Matter of Trust Chile unravels human hair.

SANTIAGO (Reuters) — Luisana Gil, a dog groomer in Santiago, Chile, has a lot of hair on her hands — she throws away bags and bags of her clients’ hair, which until recently went straight to the landfill.

Now Gil is connecting her discarded pet hair with Matter of Trust Chile, a group that uses human and animal hair to make tools that leverage hair’s natural absorbent qualities to clean local waterways of oils, heavy metals and even bacteria.

Matter of Trust’s project, Petropelo, employs tube-like booms — made out of mesh and filled with hair — to attract and trap oil in lakes, streams, coasts and other waterways.

“A single kilo of hair can clean on average five liters of hydrocarbons,” said Mattia Carenini, general manager of Matter of Trust Chile, adding it can sometimes clean upward of nine liters.

“The impact is very powerful,” he said. “We can all be part of it.”

The mesh booms are placed in waterways for up to 50 days, Carenini explained, capturing contaminants by adhesion.

A similar project by the group, Agropelo, uses hair to make woven mats that are used in soil to help retain soil moisture by reducing direct evaporation and saving water used for irrigation, according to the group.

In the town of Laguna Verde, near Chile’s port city Valparaiso, the group placed four booms and a hair mat in a stream carrying greywater from a plant to the ocean. After about a month, the devices collected 15 kilograms of contaminants, Carenini said.

“For something we throw away every day, it’s a very worthwhile thing to do,” Gil, the dog groomer, said about giving the hair a new use. “It’s impressive how much we can help the environment.”