HUMAN MATERIAL LOOP integrates waste human hair into a closed-loop recycling system, introducing new material to the textile industry. We are living on this planet long enough, taking its resources, but what are we giving back in exchange? HUMAN MATERIAL LOOP researches the concept of humans as a sustainable material of the future and proposes an alternative material to integrate into our daily products. How can we benefit from our beauty obsessions? Can beauty trends contribute to a sustainable future? Can we care as much about our planet as about our beauty?
HUMAN MATERIAL LOOP is currently based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
HUMAN MATERIAL LOOP aims to create a globally applicable system where the hair waste would be turned into sustainable products. Cities as farms, waste as material. HUMAN MATERIAL LOOP aims to radicalize our production system and lower the demand for cotton and synthetic fibers. Introducing a local, biodegradable, closed-loop, and cruelty-free material to the textile industry will not just create a positive environmental impact but would change the perception of human hair and the way each individual can contribute to a more sustainable future.
HUMAN MATERIAL LOOP is founded by Zsofia Kollar. Zsofia Kollar is an Amsterdam-based designer and researcher. One of her assignments back at her studies was rituals, her research quickly led her to human hair and rituals connected to human hair. The project soon enough turned into a material investigation and to research where human hair was examined purely from a material perspective. Human hair and its capabilities as a material, the issues with the current textile productions gave the answers to a solution – the integration of waste human hair can radically change our textile industry and push forward to a zero-waste society.
The largest amount of hair waste comes from barbershops and hair salons. Most of the hair that has been cut gets swept up into a heap on the floor and a dustpan dumped into a garbage bin and disposed of like garbage together with other non recycled materials.
The only hair that can go to make wigs for cancer patients is virgin hair at least 20cm long that has undergone no chemical procedures and is in excellent health. The hair must be very strong and healthy because it has to undergo chemical treatments to become sanitized and able to be used for wigs or pieces.
Once hair is cut and the individual did not make any claims for the cut hair, the hair can be seen as ‘res nullius’ a matter that does not belong to anyone.
Res nullius is a Latin term derived from private Roman law whereby res is not yet the object of rights of any specific subject. Such items are considered ownerless property and are free to be acquired by means of occupatio. Its usage as a legal concept continues in modern civilian legal systems. In the socio-economic sphere if a thing has been abandoned is res nullius, and therefore belongs to the first taker.
HUMAN MATERIAL LOOP believes in the strength of diversity. All hair can be recycled no matter the color, length, or type of hair. Currently, the development phase focuses on the waste management of hair salons, but HUMAN MATERIAL LOOP aims to create a system where each individual can dispose of their hair waste and contribute to a closed-loop system.
In Europe, 72 million kg of human hair waste is generated. Waste hair ends up in landfills, causing the expulsion of toxic gases into the environment. Waste hair accumulates in large amounts in the solid waste streams, choking the drainage systems. It takes several years for human hair before decomposing. While we think of human hair only existing on top of our heads, beauty salons generate huge amounts of waste, where waste management of cities only focuses on collecting the waste. The human hair is a natural filamentous biomaterial and chemically, approximately 80% keratin protein is present in human hair. The durability of keratins is a direct consequence of their complex architecture with extremely high molecular weight. Keratin protein is not easily degraded by pepsin, trypsin, and papain because of disulfide bonds, hydrogen bonding, hydrophobic interactions. The world’s population is rapidly rising, waste management and the change to local materials and production is a must for a sustainable future.
DNA is contained in blood, semen, skin cells, tissue, organs, muscle, brain cells, bone, teeth, hair, saliva, mucus, perspiration, fingernails, urine, feces, etc. DNA can be collected from virtually anywhere.
Shed hair has no nuclear DNA. Nuclear DNA comes from the cell nucleus and is inherited from both parents, half from the mother and half from the father. Each person’s nuclear DNA is unique — except for identical twins, who have the same DNA.
The hair follicle at the base of human hair contains cellular material rich in DNA. In order to be used for DNA analysis, the hair must have been pulled from the body – hairs that have been broken off or cut off do not contain Nuclear DNA. Therefore hair that has been cut off by a barber or hairdresser does not contain any Nuclear DNA.
Hair has a strength-to-weight ratio comparable to steel. It can be stretched up to one and a half times its original length before breaking. How a strand of human hair behaves when it is deformed, or stretched? Hair behaves differently depending on how fast or slows it is stretched. The faster hair is stretched, the stronger it is. Hair consists of two main parts – the cortex, which is made up of parallel fibrils, and the matrix, which has an amorphous structure. The matrix is sensitive to the speed at which hair is deformed, while the cortex is not. The combination of these two components is what gives hair the ability to withstand high stress and strain. When hair is stretched, its structure changes in a particular way. At the nanoscale, the cortex fibrils in the hair are each made up of thousands of coiled spiral-shaped chains of molecules called alpha helix chains. As hair is deformed, the alpha helix chains uncoil and become pleated sheet structures known as beta-sheets. This structural change allows hair to handle a large amount of deformation without breaking. This structural transformation is partially reversible. When hair is stretched under a small amount of strain, it can recover its original shape. Stretch it further, the structural transformation becomes irreversible.
Only in the EU, an estimated 72 million kg of human hair waste ends up in landfills. EU is the largest importer of textile products with an import value of 77 billion USD. In the EU 16 million tons of textile municipal solid waste was generated in 2015. The amount of textile waste has doubled over the last 20 years. Synthetic fibers are non-biodegradable and can take up to 200 years to decompose. Synthetic fibers are used in 72% of our clothing. The global scale that HUMAN MATERIAL LOOP can take and its integration in several industries provide a multifaceted biomaterial, reducing local waste and integrating a biodegradable material for local productions.
Hair has been playing an important role in our lives, from defining our identity it also shows the religion we associate with or the political ideology we believe in. The history of hair is as old as human history is and hair has been on a long road of usage, applications, and trends. Curious to know more about hair? Ongoing research throughout human history is bringing together some facts and matters that concern hair. Click here and learn more about the history of human hair.
95% of the clothing Americans bought in the 1960s was made in the U.S. By 2008, the figure had dropped drastically to 10%. Today, Americans only make 3%. And the same is coined true for most other regions — profit-oriented Western ready-to-wear conglomerates are sailing their ship elsewhere.
Using locally produced materials has multiple advantages. It reduces the fossil fuels and associated pollutants including greenhouse gas emissions required for shipping. It supports local businesses and feeds money into the regional economy. Small-scale local production helps to eliminate the waste of unneeded products made to adhere to overseas minimums, reduce emissions and energy usage. Local production pushes for an accountable ethical production and labor, where the environmental impacts would directly affect the consumers thereby eyes cannot be closed on overseas factory pollutants and working conditions.
Closed-loop recycling is the process by which waste is collected, recycled, and produced to make something new. Effectively, the waste does a full circle without having a negative impact on the environment.
Closed-loop recycling can be defined as essential waste management for environmental protection which is a production system with a recycling process. The attention of strategy is shifting from disposing of waste to recovery and reproduction by considering the recyclable waste as potential. Compared to open-loop recycling, closed-loop recycling protects the quality loss for new products rather than the reduced functionality. Also, a closed-loop recycling system contains various benefits that reduce the engagement of original materials and protect the environment. Reapply and reproduce a system of closed-loop recycling promotes environmental sustainability and conserves natural resources. It minimizes the dumping of non-degradable waste into the natural ecosystems, maximizing the value and practicality of recycling products. Moreover, the less consumption of resources decreases the risk of harm to the environment and wildlife. It also enables material of high quality to preserve in circulation ensures that there is a demand in the environment for these varieties of materials and this strategy is applied in multiple scopes. To be specific, the system reduces the application of virgin materials, saves occupancy space for non-recyclable materials, and reduces pollution in the environment by creating materials from original resources.
The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter in the world just after the oil industry. And the environmental damage is increasing as the industry grows. In most of the countries in which garments are produced, untreated toxic wastewaters from textiles factories are dumped directly into the rivers. Wastewater contains toxic substances such as lead, mercury, and arsenic, among others. These are extremely harmful to aquatic life and the health of millions of people living by those river banks. The contamination also reaches the sea and eventually spreads around the globe. Another major source of water contamination is the use of fertilizers for cotton production, which heavily pollutes runoff waters and evaporation waters.
The fashion industry is a major water consumer. A huge quantity of freshwater is used for the dyeing and finishing process for all of our clothes. As a reference, it can take up to 200 tons of fresh water per ton of dyed fabric. Cotton needs a lot of water to grow but is usually cultivated in warm and dry areas. Up to 20,000 liters of water are needed to produce just 1kg of cotton. This generates tremendous pressure on this precious resource, already scarce, and has dramatic ecological consequences such as the desertification of the Aral Sea, where cotton production has entirely drained the water. “85 % of the daily needs in the water of the entire population of India would be covered by the water used to grow cotton in the country. 100 million people in India do not have access to drinking water.”
The textile industry is known for being one of the most polluting industries of the modern world. The carbon footprint left behind by major textile operations is huge. The carbon released throughout the supply chain produces 1.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year, which is 10% of global carbon emissions – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Textile mills generate one-fifth of the world’s industrial water pollution and use 20,000 chemicals, many of them carcinogenic, to make clothes. Chinese textile factories alone produce about three billion tons of soot—air pollution linked to respiratory and heart disease—every year by burning coal for energy.
The amount of clothes bought in the EU per person has increased by 40 % in just a few decades, driven by a fall in prices and the increased speed with which fashion is delivered to consumers. Clothing accounts for between 2 % and 10 % of the environmental impact of EU consumption. This impact is often felt in third countries, as most production takes place abroad. The production of raw materials, spinning them into fibers, weaving fabrics, and dyeing require enormous amounts of water and chemicals, including pesticides for growing raw materials such as cotton. Consumer use also has a large environmental footprint due to the water, energy, and chemicals used in washing, tumble drying, and ironing, as well as microplastics, shed into the environment. Less than half of used clothes are collected for reuse or recycling when they are no longer needed, and only 1 % are recycled into new clothes since technologies that would enable recycling clothes into virgin fibers are only starting to emerge.
Hair is composed of tough protein, mainly keratin, which is a combination of amino acids like cysteine, serine, glutamic acid, etc. In elemental form, it contains 51% carbon, 17% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 6% hydrogen, 5% sulfur, and a trace amount of Fe, Mg, and other elements.
Hair is also a biological fiber. With the increase of global energy crisis and ecology risk, the unique advantages of biological fibers such as human hair are not yet implemented in our product cycles. Human hair and its abundance quantity, non-toxic, non-irritation of the skin, high tensile strength, lightweight, thermal insulator, flexibility, and oil-absorbing capability as a material show a great potential to validate human hair as a valuable biological fiber.
The two most important fibers used in the textile industry are cotton and polyester. Cotton dominated the textile market until the end of the last century whereas today most textile products are made of synthetic fibers (63%). The three most importantly synthetic fibers are polyester (55%), nylon (5%), and acrylic (2%).
Cellulosic fiber production (natural fibers from plants) has been growing in volume and market share in recent years. Despite this growth, future projections for fiber production by 2030 still have polyester far outweighing cotton. Some countries consume far more fiber per capita than others – wealthy and developed countries usually consume the most … although there are some new countries starting to consume more fibers per capita as global wealth expands.
Despite the awareness growing for some new more ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ fibers, these fibers make up an incredibly small % of the market, compared to what might be less sustainable fibers and fabrics.
Depending on the weaving technique human hair textile can have different patterns and textures depending on the weaving technique. The first handwoven tapestry piece below is the very first example that human hair textile can look just like any other woven fabric.
The biggest challenge to overcome for integrating human hair textile into the industry is to change the perception of human hair. Everybody likes human hair as long as it is on their own head, but when it becomes separated from the body it becomes repulsive. Human hair is a well-known material, but once it is cut off from our heads nobody sees it as a material. The perception can be changed, and it is very much needed to make a change in our current production system. The arrogance of the general human species that we stand all above other living creatures needs to be changed, we are part of the whole ecosystem of this planet, it is time to contribute, make use of our own materials.
To challenge the general perception and what impact the integration of human hair textiles can create to the industry a quiz was created to test the perception of human hair and other materials, it can be filled out here. From the answers, it can be concluded that people are open to radical ideas to sustain a livable planet and 98% answered yes to the final question if they would purchase products made out of human hair.
– 100% closed-loop recycling
– Local source and local production
– Ecological production
– Biodegradable material
– Chemical-free manufacture
– Anti-allergic material
– Advanced color technology from the beauty industry without chemicals
– Light weight material
– Second life product possibilities
– High tensile strength
– Elastic recovery
– Thermal insulation
– Oil-absorbing capability
– Growing population = more raw material
Cities as farms, waste as material, the way to change the textile industry are on our heads. Several industries can integrate human hair textiles into their product range, which gives a locally sourced, biodegradable material that is 100% recycled. A few years ago I started working with human hair, first made a handwoven tapestry piece. The piece got some publicity via design platforms such as Dezeen. Human hair textiles are often associated with some repulsive feelings. What I realized back then if people can’t even tell the material is made of human hair and has a smooth finish nobody thinks it’s repulsive. The textile industry can integrate human hair textiles into their products in a wide variety of fields. Curtains, carpets, apparel items, furniture upholstery. Due to the high tensile strength of human hair, strong and durable pieces can be woven, giving an extended lifespan of any item. The oil-absorbing capability of the structure of hair can be integrated into products, such as scented curtains which can give a new approach to retail scenting or public space experiences. One thing is certain the list of possibilities is long, it depends on the openness of the consumers and willingness to change.
Globalization means that materials and labor can be purchased in different parts of the world where costs are very low. Ethical textile is an umbrella term to describe ethical textile design, production, retail, and purchasing. It covers a range of issues such as working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment, and animal welfare.
Every production starts with harvesting the raw material. Human hair textile and its raw material are in the hand or to be precise on the head of individuals. The growing and cultivating process falls out of the circle of human hair textile production, leaving zero footprints for the growing process. Human hair textile collects the hair waste that individuals decided to leave behind after their beauty treatment. The waste is collected, and due to the lightweight of the hair, the collection is possible by bicycles across cities. The waste hair doesn’t require a thorough cleaning process and can be processed without any chemicals. The coloring of the textile pieces can be implemented by the technology that the beauty industry developed. The coloring process of human hair is advanced with biochemicals that don’t use hazardous chemicals, unlike any other textile dyeing process. Human hair textile uses local production and local designers. Local production and local design lead to a process that can be overseen, monitored, and provide fair wages, proper working conditions, and local labor law.
Carbon emission is the release of carbon into the atmosphere. To talk about carbon emissions is simply to talk of greenhouse gas emissions; the main contributors to climate change. Energy consumption is by far the biggest source of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for a whopping 73% worldwide. The energy sector includes transportation, electricity and heat, buildings, manufacturing and construction, fugitive emissions, and other fuel combustion. Calculating the carbon footprint of industry, product, or service is a complex task. One tool industry uses Life-cycle assessment (LCA), where carbon footprint may be one of many factors taken into consideration when assessing a product or service. The International Organization for Standardization has a standard called ISO 14040:2006 that has the framework for conducting an LCA study. ISO 14060 family of standards provides further sophisticated tools for quantifying, monitoring, reporting, and validating or verifying GHG emissions and removals. HUMAN MATERIAL LOOP is in the development phase to set up a system and industrial production and therefore too early to calculate the exact amount of carbon emission. One thing we can predict for certain, HUMAN MATERIAL LOOP can become the material of the future with the lowest carbon footprint.
As a lipophilic material, human hair repels water but actively absorbs oil. One kilogram of human hair can absorb up to eight litres of oil, making it a highly effective material for cleaning up spills.
In August 2020, a ship ran aground off the coast of Mauritius, leaking over 1,000 metric tons of oil into the clear turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and causing catastrophic damage to the island and its ecosystem. The University of Technology Sydney released a study examining different materials used for cleaning up oil spills to find out what sorbent works best for soaking up crude oil. After comparing polypropylene, a major plastic material used by disaster agencies, with sustainable-origin sorbents including donated dog fur clippings and human hair recycled from salon waste, they found that hair worked well in decontaminating spilled oil in ocean-type environments and on hard land surfaces. Hair is able to decompose much faster than plastics when it is finished using it, so it generates much less long-term landfill. Textiles that are not preferred by consumers can be donated to create mats for ocean spill clean-ups.
The MV Wakashio bulk carrier is broken into two parts near Blue Bay Marine Park, Mauritius, Aug. 16, 2020.
Thick, ink-like water flows through rivers surrounding garment factories; a toxic soup of chemicals discarded from the fashion industry’s synthetic dye processes, filtering into the water systems of the planet. Why is colour – this fundamental component of fashion production – allowed to pollute water systems throughout the world? As much as 200 tonnes of water are used per tonne of fabric in the textile industry. The majority of this water is returned to nature as toxic waste, containing residual dyes and hazardous chemicals. Wastewater disposal is seldom regulated, adhered to or policed, meaning big brands, and the factory owners themselves are left unaccountable. Examples of synthetic dyes are disperse, reactive, acid and azo dyes. Natural dyes, meaning colour obtained from naturally occurring sources – are another source of colour for textiles, but these are rarely employed on industrial scales.
Azo dyes are found in 60-80% of all colorants and are responsible for the vivid colours that can be seen in many textiles, especially clothing. Azo dyes can quite easily come off fabrics and can break down to release chemicals called aromatic amines, some of which have been reported to cause cancer.Some dyes can also cause contact dermatitis, the most common of which being disperse blue 106 and disperse blue 124. In 2003 the EU banned azo dyes that could release one or more of the 22 most dangerous aromatic amines; in the United States these dyes are only banned in the state of California. Given the variation in regulation of these dyes internationally, independent certification standards have emerged as an excellent mechanism for responsible manufacturers to ensure that their products meet the highest requirements in terms of consumer safety.
Heavy metals are often used as part of the dyeing process and include antimony, cadmium, lead, mercury and chromium VI. Once absorbed by the body, these metals can accumulate in the liver or kidney and cause serious health problems. Cadmium, lead and chromium IV are classified as carcinogens, with cadmium being restricted in Europe for some time. The use of mercury and lead has been restricted in textiles, however, they are still of concern.
Chlorobenzenes are used in the dyeing process as carriers or levelling agents. They are more often used in polyester and polyester blend textiles, rather than natural textiles. They can be toxic by inhalation or skin contact and can accumulate in the body over time affecting the liver, thyroid and central nervous system. Chlorobenzenes are restricted for use in the EU, to levels below 1.0mg/Kg.
Dye entering a river. Photo: RiverBlue
Textile waste can be divided into pre-consumer and post-consumer waste. The pre-consumer waste is generated at factory floors during cutting, and during the manufacturing process of apparel making, and includes fabric selvages and leftover fabric scraps.
Part of the waste created in the textile industry consists of fabrics and trims—including buttons, embroidery threads, and other adornments. It can be said that 10-25% of the fabric is wasted during this process. A lot of companies try to recycle fabric wastes to create accessories, jewelry, and patched one-of-a-kind garments. Although there is no way to completely eliminate the amount of waste created, it is possible to reduce it.
Deadstock or damaged yardage, which is another source of hard-to-measure waste. The scrap material is being turned into material down the value chain, thus losing the value of the scraps to be used in its highest value in fabric form. In the worst case, it is ending up in the landfill or incinerator. There are some amazing programs turning denim scraps into building insulation, melting polyester or nylon scraps into new yarns, and age-old processes recycling cashmere and wool into new yarns. Yet these programs are mainly limited to fabrics that are nearly 100% of a single fiber, leaving not much else to do with the ever-popular blended fiber fabrics.
Human hair is one of the highest nitrogen-containing organic materials in nature because it is predominantly made up of proteins. In addition, human hair also contains sulfur, carbon, and 20 other elements essential for plants. In the atmosphere, hair decomposes very slowly, but moisture and keratinolytic fungi present in the soil, animal manure, and sewage sludge can degrade hair within a few months. In traditional Chinese agriculture, human hair was mixed with cattle dung to prepare compost that was applied to the fields in the winter season. In some communities in India, hair has been used directly as fertilizer for many fruit and vegetable crops and in making organic manures. Recent experiments on horticulture plants show that direct application of human hair to soil provides the necessary plant nutrients for over two to three cropping seasons.
Pre-consumer textile waste of human hair textiles can be processed into fertilizers, integrating a biomaterial to the agriculture industry, creating zero waste of the textile manufacturing process. If industries would collaborate, knowledge would be exchanged and would create a positive impact for all industries involved. Human hair textiles can connect the beauty, textile, and agriculture industries.