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From trash to treasure: How hair waste could help our environment

14 June 2017

Rebecca Pagnucco is completing her Masters (Research) at UTS Science. Image by Bondi Films.

When most of us go for a trim, we don’t think much of what happens to our locks after they’ve been given the chop. They probably just get swept up and chucked in the bin, destined to take up precious landfill space.  But, UTS Master of Science student, Rebecca Pagnucco does think about your hair trimmings—and that they’re far more useful than you might think.

Ms Pagnucco and her supervisor, Dr Megan Phillips, are conducting research on the potential uses for offcuts of human hair, including whether the hair waste from salons can be used to remediate environmental disasters, such as oil spills.

“Hair is a natural biosorbent ” Ms Pagnucco said. “It’s been shown to adsorb 3-9 times its weight in oil.

“Your hair gets oily and greasy—the oil basically is stuck to the hair fibres. By a similar method, it would stick to other oils, such as crude oil,” she said.

Rebecca Pagnucco at the Sustainable Salons Australia warehouse. Image by Bondi Films

Using hair as a remediation tool is a fairly new area of research. Only a couple of studies having been conducted where the hair was either ground up or changed it in some way before being used.

Several environmental groups experimented with hair booms during the BP oil spill, but did not conduct scientific research, which is what Ms Pagnucco thinks needs to happen.

“There are a lot of different materials that are used in contamination cleanup … a lot of them are synthetic products, particularly things that are made of polypropylene and other types of plastic polymers,” Ms Pagnucco said.

“There’s recently been a lot of media attention around marine plastic pollution and whether particular types of dispersants are actually doing more harm than good trying to clean up oil sites,” she said.

As a result of this concern, there has been a push towards research using natural materials such as cotton or wool.

“Cotton and wool can work very well because they are adsorbent obviously, but they are also quite valued in making textiles and clothing, so there’s already another, more useful demand for them,” Ms Pagnucco said. “Whereas with something like hair, there’s no value in it once you’ve cut it off your head, it’s waste.”

“Hair can also be reused several times without a significant decrease in its ability to adsorb oil,” she said.

Working with Sustainable Salons Australia—who aim to recycle 95 per cent of salon waste—Ms Pagnucco and Dr Phillips, hope their research will help to give new life to a waste material that would usually have no other practical use.

“It’s really important that we start to find more sustainable ways of dealing with our waste,” Ms Pagnucco said. “My research is important because if we continue on the path we’re on, our waste will continue growing and that has a flow-on effect on the whole environment.” 

Ms Pagnucco hopes that after more research is completed, any oil adsorbed by hair booms could be recovered, improving efficiency even further.