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How human hair can help tackle challenges associated with climate change

Human hair used to combat oil spills, develop sustainable textiles
Human hair used to combat oil spills, develop sustainable textiles 03:27

Scientists are saying human hair could be the biggest sustainable textile on the planet that can be used to address some major issues linked to climate change.

There's a movement quietly gaining momentum in the fashion world that is less about what's trendy and more about the material being used.

As unlikely as it might sound, human hair is sweeping the runway and challenging our sense of style – and our "ick" factor.

"Even if your own hair, you don't even want to look at it on the floor. You don't even want to touch it," said Zsofia Kollar.

Kollar is the founder of Human Material Loop, a clothing design start-up headquartered in Amsterdam. The designer goes to salons and barber shops, scooping up discarded hair.

With the help of scientists and engineers, the strands are turned into sturdy fibers that get sewn into couture pieces.

"We have developed few knitted pieces, also woven pieces. So then we can really also show, okay, this can be an alternative to actually fibers or wool fibers," explained Kollar.

The use of human hair is part of an effort to reduce the environmental impacts of the fashion world. 

The industry consumes a massive amount of water. According to the World Research Institute, it takes 700 gallons to produce just one cotton shirt when compared to the human hair method, which uses no water.

From the runway to a chic hair salon in San Francisco, human hair has taken on a new role.

"I've been cutting hair for about 20 years," said creative stylist Lisa Pomo.

Pomo is beginning to cut Philip Lam's hair. But this cut is far from ordinary.

"The hair usually goes to oil spill clean-up mats," said Lam.

The strands of hair cut from the young man's head are carefully collected, and then turned into a hair mat, thanks to a San Francisco nonprofit called Matter of Trust.

"We felt these fibers into mats that can go into storm drains and contaminated reservoirs and filter out all the petrochemicals," said Matter of Trust co-founder and CEO Lisa Gautier. 

The hair mats were invented by hair stylist Phil McCrory, who while washing the oily hair of a client, saw a television news report on the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill when the oil tanker ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound.

"It just clicked for him," said Gautier. Hair absorbs up to five times its weight in oil.

Matter of Trust collects hair, fur, wool, and fleece and then uses a special felting machine to create incredibly strong hair mats.  

Matter of Trust project manager Daniel Tulberg showed CBS SF how the device works. He ran the mat of hair through a few times. The smaller strands serve as filler, and the longer strands encase the mat. He held is up and pulled on it from all corners, without a single strand budging.

"And just like that, we have a completed hair mat," said Tulberg with a smile.

The mats have been used to clean up hundreds of oil spills in U.S. waters, including the 2007 incident involving the Cosco Busan cargo ship that accidentally hit the San Francisco Bay Bridge and spilled 58,000 gallons of fuel into the bay. 

The oil industry is one of the major contributors to global warming and climate change. 

As for Lam's new hair cut?

"It looks good! And it's totally an awesome cause," he said. 

Instead of ending up in landfill, the free hair is the newest sustainable fabric, saving water in the fashion industry while also cleaning up the environment, one lock at a time.

To donate hair, animal fur, wool and fleece to Matter of Trust, there is a process to follow listed on the Matter of Trust website. Interested parties can register first and follow the simple directions provided to make a donation.

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