Every month, the salon industry churns out thousands of pounds of waste that ends up in landfills.
Much of that waste is human hair — a surprisingly versatile material that, when recycled, can be transformed into useful products for a wide range of industries.
At GLO, we’ve made hair recycling easy. Our process is simple, cost-effective, and available to salons and barber shops of all shapes and sizes.
Together, we can make the world a little better by committing to greener practices. Read on to learn everything there is to know about hair recycling for salons.
How does beauty salon waste — human hair in particular — harm the environment?
When human hair is collected in plastic garbage bags and thrown away, it accumulates in dumps or landfills. Plastic bags take anywhere from 10 to 1,000 years to decompose. During that time, the hair-filled bags can cause a variety of problems, including the below.
- Global warming: Due to a lack of oxygen, bagged hair that sits in landfills produces methane gas: a powerful and dangerous greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and climate change.
- Water pollution: Excess nutrients from human hair sitting in waste streams, dumps, and landfills can flow into nearby bodies of water, causing a type of pollution called eutrophication. Eutrophication triggers algae growth that can harm marine life.
- Air pollution: If plastic bags of human hair waste are burned — as is the case in some areas of the world — they can emit dangerous chemicals and noxious gases, as well as unpleasant odors.
- Health problems: Hair sitting in open waste dumps can generate dust, causing discomfort or even respiratory issues for people who live and work nearby.
The best way to keep hair waste out of our waste streams and landfills? Reframing human hair “waste” as a valuable renewable resource worthy of recycling. More on that below.
What are some valuable uses for recycled human hair?
Recycled human hair has immense potential for use due to its chemical composition and a number of unique properties:
- Slow to degrade
- High tensile strength (resistant to breaking under pressure)
- High elastic recovery or resilience
- Scaly surface
- Unique interactions with water and oils
On top of that, human hair is completely biodegradable, renewable, and available everywhere. Because of this, recycling hair can benefit a variety of industries.
Hair recycling can create eco-friendly fertilizer and pest control for the agriculture industry.
Fertilizer & Composting
Human hair clocks in at roughly 16% nitrogen, making it an effective fertilizer. Compare human hair to cattle dung, which is only 0.2-0.3% nitrogen, and there’s no question as to which is more effective.
While hair decomposes very slowly in the air, when combined with moisture and soil, it can degrade within a few months. It’s been shown to supply necessary plant nutrients for over two to three cropping seasons.
At GLO, we currently donate recycled hair to farms to help them grow their crops through composting. We recently sat down with Mary Benton, owner of Kentucky-based, fifth-generation Benton Farms to learn more about her usage of recycled hair on the farm.
According to Mary, using hair to facilitate farming isn’t new to the Bentons — her father used to sprinkle recycled hair from a local barbershop around his pumpkin patches to ward off deer. Now, using recycled hair from GLO, Benton Farms adds hair to the manure spreader, using it as compost across their pumpkin and alfalfa fields.
As demonstrated by Benton Farms, human hair can also help farmers by limiting pests. When placed around fields and gardens, “hair mats” can deter animals like rabbits and deer from feeding on crops. Human hair has also been shown to ward off certain insects.
According to Gupta’s article on hair utilization, farmers in Florida that used human hair mats to deter pests were able to save almost $50,000 on pesticides and 1 million plants per year.
Recycled hair can be used to create pharmaceuticals and medical tools.
Human hair protein contains essential amino acids that can be extracted and used in a number of pharmaceutical formulations. L-cysteine, for example, can be used for wound healing, while N-acetyl L-cysteine (NAC) can treat conditions like chest congestion and acetaminophen poisoning.
Using human hair for medical purposes isn’t new. Traditional Chinese medicine, for example, has used carbonized human hair to treat hemorrhages, burns, wounds, and scars. And in some rural Indian communities, hair ash applied to open wounds for immediate pain relief.
Human hair is incredibly strong, making it a viable option for suture in most surgeries. This practice isn’t new; human hair was used in surgery in Europe in the Middle Ages. Recent research has confirmed its potential for surgical use in the modern age, as well — both for humans and animals.
Pollution control and remediation can be helped by human hair recycling.
Human hair has a high affinity for oil, meaning it can easily absorb and hold oil. For this reason, hair booms and hair mats can be used in the aftermath of an oil spill to recover up to 98% of spilled oil. The downside is that there isn’t a great way to recycle oil-soaked hair booms. Unfortunately, they’re sometimes burned, which diminishes their positive impact on the environment.
Human hair can also absorb chemicals like formaldehyde and heavy metals like mercury from water. Because of this, recycled hair can also serve as a low-cost way to purify water.
Hair can be used in construction and to make textiles.
Because of its strength, human hair can be used to reinforce clay-based construction. Around the world, hair/clay mixtures have been used to plaster houses. An added benefit is the thermal insulation that hair provides.
Because of its elasticity and thermal insulation properties, hair has been used to stuff mattresses, toys, and other household items. It can also be used to make various kinds of fabric for clothing and blankets.
The theater, fashion, and cosmetic industries turn recycled hair into wigs, extensions, and more.
One of the oldest and most broadly used applications of recycled hair is to create wigs, the oldest of which in existence dates back to 1400 B.C. Wigs, hair extensions, and other hair-based beauty accessories continue to be used in the theater and fashion industries, and have become more widespread in consumer markets.
Charitable organizations like Wigs for Kids also accept donations of undyed hair, 12 inches or longer, to create wigs for children undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy, or who suffer from alopecia or other medical issues.
Finally, recycled hair is sometimes turned into test swatches for shampoos, conditioners, and other hair products, or into makeup brushes.
How can salons become involved in hair recycling efforts?
Despite the myriad potential uses for human hair, hair recycling isn’t nearly as widespread as it could and should be. However, salon recycling services like GLO are leading the charge to help salons become more green by keeping waste — including human hair — out of landfills.
When you sign up for our GLO Salon Recycling Plan, you’ll subscribe to one or a combination of GLO Boxes, which we’ll mail to you each month. Once you fill the boxes and ship them back to us, we’ll get to work giving the recycled items a Second Life®. Currently, we’re donating recycled hair to local farmers to use as compost.
Getting started is easy — we’ve made salon recycling simple, cost-effective, and customizable. We’re on a mission to transform the world of beauty by building a greener tomorrow. Will you join us?
Despite its potential, human hair recycling hasn’t yet hit the mainstream and there are limited resources regarding recycled hair’s potential. One such resource is a wonderful article by Ankush Gupta, which we referenced heavily. We encourage you to read the article for yourself if you’d like to learn more.