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As crews race to clean up Gulf, some turn to a low-tech approach

BP’s failure to stem the flow of oil gushing out into the Gulf of Mexico is, among other things, a devastating reminder of the limits of technology. Response crews have attempted to close off the blown-out pipeline with a so-called “containment dome,” only to retreat soon after. BP is now racing to install a smaller dome, as oil spews out into the waters along the fragile Louisiana coastline at a rate of about 200,000 barrels a day.

Given the lack of success so far, some groups at the site have opted for a different, and decidedly less advanced, approach: hair.

Members of Matter of Trust pose with a collection of oil "booms" made from human and animal hair. Photo:

Matter of Trust, an environmental organization based in San Francisco, has been collecting donations of hair and animal fur in an effort to soak up as much of the excess oil as possible. The group has used a similar technique in past accidents, including a spill in the Bay Area in 1998. Barbers and pet groomers around the world have been saving their excess clippings, stuffing them into boxes and shipping them out to the Gulf, where they can be wrung out and reused up to 100 times.

The absorptive qualities of hair have proven especially effective at soaking up and retaining oil. The liquid collects under scales running along the structure of the hair, which loosely resembles the trunk of a palm tree, and stays there until washed away by, for example, shampoo. A pound of hair can pick up and retain as much as a quart of oil in a minute, making it an effective tool for crews searching for low-tech, inexpensive ways to clean up the mess in the Gulf.

Donated hair comes in from all over the U.S. and Canada. Photo:

The effort has apparently resonated. Scalps from all 50 states and several countries have contributed more than 400,000 pounds of hair. Volunteers at a dozen sites around the Louisiana coast have organized local events to stuff the hair into nylon hose, which can be used as “booms” resembling giant dreadlocks to soak up the oil. The events are called “Boom B Qs.”

“Booms will lie along the beach, the waves will come up, and they’ll go through the hair and the nylon,” Lisa Gautier, Matter of Trust’s co-founder, told NPR. “And the hair will grab the oil and then the wave goes back out and it’s cleaner.”

If you’d like to offer some of your own hair (or your pet’s), sign up on Matter of Trust’s website, and you’ll receive directions for where to send your clippings.

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