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Haircuts can help clean up oil spills

Susan Burgess Laux looks ”normal.“

She wears normal-looking clothes and shoes, and her hair is beautifully cut and maintained.

There are no torn jeans, no hair going every which way, no tie-dyed T-shirt — images we are given to conjure up when thinking of people passionate about saving the Earth.

Nothing about Laux, the owner of The Woodlands Salon, would indicate that she long ago embraced our need to treat the Earth better so that it would be here much longer. She's been a cosmetologist for more than 30 years and has been environmentally concerned for most of that time.

”We have always been about taking care of Mother Earth and recycling and doing whatever we could for the community,“ she said.

Those efforts include handing out 500 white pine seedlings after an ice storm one year, or packets of seeds another year, and even bracelets made of tagua nuts, to give people in Ecuador, Columbia and Panama another reason to preserve the rainforest.

In her salon, Laux (pronounced like low) uses the Aveda line of plant-based products. She and that company share a concern for our water supply, particularly with the Ohio River.

So it should be surprising to no one that after reading about an Alabama barber's discovery that human hair can help the environment, Laux decided she would join in.

In 1989, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, Phil McCrory of Huntsville, Ala., noticed that the fur of some animals trapped in the spill was absorbing oil. With that idea, he devised a way to put human hair clippings, gathered from the floor of his barbershop, in a mat and use it as a sort of mulch.

In November, a group of volunteers from Matter of Trust in California used the mats to help soak up oil tar that washed ashore from a 58,000-gallon oil spill in San Francisco Bay.

It was the first time human hair mats were used to help clean up an oil spill.

Just as hair soaks up oil on our heads and our bodies, it does the same thing after being cut, Laux said.

She is now collecting all the clippings in her shop and shipping them to Matter of Trust.

”I want all the other salons and barbershops in the area to collect all their hair clippings, too, and send them to California,“ she said, ”so that we can clean up the oil spills and so that we can preserve wildlife.“

While human hair is best, pet hair from groomers is accepted as well. It doesn't absorb the oil as well, but it does work.

There is a demonstration of the efficiency of the mats at www.matteroftrust.org.

The mats are reusable, but when they are fully saturated, the environmental group has come up with an even more environmentally friendly way of disposing of them.

They are experimenting with covering the oily mats with oyster mushroom spores, which appear to be able to digest the oil as the plant grows and turns the mats into compost. Photos of that are on the Web site as well.

Each salon is responsible for the postage involved in sending hair to California, but, as Laux said, it doesn't weigh that much.

And for those who don't feel led to help out with oil spills on the West Coast or in Alaska, Laux said, they should think locally.

”Oil spills happen all over,“ she said. ”We had one in Kentucky this year. They are close to home.“

In addition to oil spills, the mats are also used in drip pans when changing oil, under machines that leak oil and around pipelines.

With thousands of salons now participating in the collection of hair clippings, Matter of Trust has a partnership with a company that hires 18- to 22-year-olds who are transitioning out of foster care to make the mats.

They seem to have thought of everything.

So on this, the 38th annual observance of Earth Day, tell your barber, stylist or pet's groomer to give all their clippings to a project that cares.

And, like Laux, you can look ”normal“ while trying to save the planet.

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