Barbers collect hair for spill, but who wants it?

A charity gathers locks for oil-cleaning devices; they sit unused

Staff WriterMay 20, 2010 

  • Although the hair may not be used in the gulf, VIPet Resort is hosting a "Groom for the Gulf" benefit. Dogs will receive a trim, and their hair will be shipped south.

    WHEN: Saturday at 9 a.m.

    WHERE: VIPet Resort, 5014 Lacy Ave., Raleigh, 27609, 919-713-4343

Hair salons in the Triangle and nationwide are sweeping up clippings, stuffing them in boxes and sending them to the Gulf Coast to help sop up oil. But the officials overseeing the massive crude cleanup say they aren't using any hair. It is all apparently just being stored in warehouses in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida.

Matter of Trust, a San Francisco-based charity, has been leading the effort, calling on barbers, beauticians and pet groomers to collect human and pet hair by the tons. The hair is stuffed in tubes of women's hosiery, creating "booms" that soak up oil, the charity says. Hair collects oil from your scalp, so why not crude oil, too?

Matt Lewis, owner of the Sport Clips barber shop in Raleigh's North Hills, said a store manager heard about Matter of Trust's efforts, so Lewis registered the store on the group's website, matteroftrust.org. Last week, Sport Clips sent 12 pounds of hair at a cost of $13 in shipping to an address in Louisiana, he said. He even persuaded Sport Clips corporate headquarters to get involved.

Syd's Hair Shop in Chapel Hill and VIPet Resort in Raleigh also are vacuuming up hair and calling the UPS guy.

But hair booms are not being used in the cleanup of the exploded BP oil rig, Heath Seng of the U.S. Coast Guard said Wednesday. Mark Proegler, a spokesman for BP who is at the cleanup site, said crews are using only "regular, absorbent plastic booms."

Even Matter of Trust's Web site acknowledged this week, "At this time BP is not soliciting or accepting [hair] donations."

"Our pleasant response to this is, 'At this time Matter of Trust is simply stockpiling hair booms in donated warehouses all along the Gulf Coast, in case you need them,' " wrote Lisa Craig Gautier, president of Matter of Trust, on the website.

Gautier has not returned voicemails or e-mails for the past week.

Lewis, of Sport Clips, said he was unaware that officials are not using hair in the cleanup and that this is not clear on Matter of Trust's Web site. "I've got to think they are doing good with this," he said.

VIPet Resort is hosting a "Groom for The Gulf" benefit Saturday at 9 a.m., where staff members will cut and collect dogs' hair. Karen Murphree, the owner, said she too signed up with Matter of Trust and was given an address in Florida to send her collected hair.

"It's my understanding they are waiting for the oil spill to come in closer to the coast line," she said.

Syd's has a large trash can that is almost full of hair, said owner Bradford Scott, who plans to ship it by the end of the week.

"We're still getting e-mails from Matter of Trust that they keep getting more and more warehouse space," he said, even after learning that hair is not now being used at the cleanup site. "I'm hoping it all works out."

Mixed messages

The Matter of Trust website Wednesday night had an "alert" that said, "BP has contacted us and wants to use the boom!" But a Coast Guard spokesman said no plans to use the hair booms had arisen.

In a May 5 New York Times story, Gautier, who co-founded Matter of Trust 10 years ago with her husband, Patrice Olivier Gautier, an executive at Apple, said the group had reached a "tipping point," increasing its network of donors from 35,000 to 90,000 in three days.

"It's truly just a surge of philanthropy," Gautier said. "Everybody can get a haircut and donate."

The group recently posted a couple of videos on YouTube. One shows the effectiveness of hair booms collecting oil out of water. The other is a do-it-yourself video on how to make a hair boom.

Gautier has sent e-mail messages to salons, saying the group is "Still accepting hair, fur, waste wool, alpaca fleece and nylons!"

"There are other HazMat crews and contractors, and we are getting requests for booms," Gautier wrote in an e-mail message provided by Murphree, the VIPet Resort owner. "Things seem a bit confused at the moment. As the oil has not come in as expected yet, we have time to talk to everyone and make sure that whoever takes the boom is officially HazMat certified and will dispose of the oiled boom according to municipal, state and federal regulations."

Off-target charity

Thomas Birkland, an N.C. State University public policy professor who is an expert on disasters and environmental policy, said he is not surprised that people are sending hair, even if it is not being used.

"In any disaster, well-meaning people get together materials that they think will help," said Birkland, who has extensively studied oil spills, including the Exxon Valdez.

But sometimes the materials just create logistical problems, he said. For instance, after the Sept. 11 attacks, people donated blood, but it was not needed for victims, so it was used for other needs. After the tsunami in Thailand, people donated down parkas and heavy-duty tents, but Thailand has a warm climate where coats got too hot and the tents turned into saunas.

"People want to help; they don't want to see oily birds, oily turtles or oily dolphins," Birkland said. "The question is, where do you put the hair? Where do you distribute it?

"It might not have been part of the response plan for a spill of this size," he continued. "Just because it's a good idea, it may not be practical."

leah.friedman@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4546

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