Each year 6,700 tonnes of human hair waste is produced in hairdressing in the UK - and 98 percent of it ends up in landfill. But Edinburgh salon, Paterson SA, is part of a growing scheme to prevent waste from their industry from being dumped. 

Their hair-sweepings are collected by innovative recyclers and reusers, the Green Salon Collective, and used to make a range of different products, from compost to yarn and ocean-saving booms - and perhaps even, one day, clothes.

Paterson SA director Layla King said: "The hair gets used for ten different things. But what’s most important for us is that it’s used to mop up oil in the sea and to clean up pollutant rivers across the UK and Ireland. It also gets made into hair mats and compost. Hair can be used for rope making. It is combined with wool to make fabric.”

The salon is currently about to hit its goal of 100 percent of waste recycled.

Hair absorbs oil – one of the reasons it is packed into tubes to make slick-mopping booms, some of which Green Salon Collective used in Northern Ireland in 2021 to absorb red diesel that had spilt into the sea from farmland. But saving the oceans is just one element of Green Salon Collective’s project.

The Herald:

Fry Taylor cleaning up Northern Ireland oil spill with hair booms. Image: Green Salon Collective

Co-founded by a former hairdresser, Fry Taylor, the Green Salon Collective has been running for three years and now diverts 100 tonnes of salon waste from landfill – not only hair but other salon waste, including the foils used for colouring.

Jess Rigg, project manager at GSC said: “We estimate that back in 2021 when GSC started, less than 1% of salon metals were being recycled. Now, we estimate that it's closer to 2% due to the amazing 1000-plus salons that recycle with us. These salons can be found using our online store locator.”

What Green Salon Collective is doing is not only ground-breaking in terms of recycling and reuse, but may alter our perception of hair, and its potential as a material. Most startling are the experiments being done with turning waste hair into yarn and fabric that could someday be worn by humans.

The Herald: Hair wool gardening twine

Hair wool gardening twine. Image: Crawford Hair

“Many people think of using hair as gross,” said Jess Rigg. “There’s something a bit visceral about it - a bit 'Eeew!'  But throughout history, it used to be used in mourning or as a love token. Now as soon as it’s chopped off, it becomes waste and people think of it as this disgusting thing. But it’s got this incredible potential.”

In collaboration with Natural Fibre Co, a wool mill in Cornwall, the collective has also experimented with creating hair and wool fibre. Rigg said: “Natural Fibre Co has made something that’s like a yarn that’s an alternative to twine, and we’ve had our member salons use it in their gardens. We’ve also had a textile designer knit some swatches out of it.”

READ MORE: Policy makers must put differences aside for the sake of the climate

The collective also has a felting machine for hair, and an architectural design studio, Pareid, used such felt to construct a pair of sinuous columns for the London Design Festival. GSC has also created mats from hair to cover storm drains or clean up waterways and has even harnessed the power of hair to work as compost.

The Herald: Hair running through a felting machine

Hair running through a felting machine. Image: Pareid

“We recently,” said Ms Rigg, “did a study following a year of house plant growth, with hair in the pot, and we had four different options of where the hair was and if there was hair at all – and we found that hair is beneficial to houseplants. So a lot of our salons now are putting hair in their plants but also giving the clients a little ziplock of hair to put in their plants. It’s like a potting felt.”

READ MORE Deposit return scheme? We need a global plastic waste treaty

It was Paterson SA's technical director, Zoe McConnachie who introduced the scheme to the salon after first hearing about it through Wella. What was particularly important to her was that the foils she used in colouring were recycled.

“As hairdressers," she said, "we can create quite a lot of waste and I think that it is such an important part of life for a business to be able to recycle as much as we possibly can. It's important for me as a colourist, being able to recycle my foils, my colour tubes, the colour boxes.”

The metal waste, said Ms Rigg, is recycled in the same way as one might a drink's can. "It’s just aluminium. But the problem is a lot of councils and other waste services won’t take it because it’s contaminated with hairdressing chemicals. But we’re working with small specialist recyclers who do it as a batch on its own – so it's not risking contaminating any other recycling that might be collected at the same time."  

The aim, she said, is to provide “actual solutions that are going to make a big impact on landfill, on waste, on carbon savings rather than something a bit more abstract or wishy-washy."

Will we all be wearing human hair in the future? Ms Rigg thinks it's not inconceivable. “Nobody has volunteered to wear a jumper of human hair yet," she said. "We need someone who is up for it. But the potential is there with this hair and wool blend and there’s also an amazing designer called Sanne Visser who works with hair. She has made a hair rope.”