For years, the planet has been running out of natural resources at an alarming rate. The evidence suggests that human activities have already altered 70% of the Earth’s land surface, leading to degraded ecosystems and devastating losses in biodiversity. Part of the problem lies in the way we consume, process and transport raw materials, to supply polluting industries like food and fashion. To counter this, it’s essential that we embrace circular and sustainable practices that go beyond recycling. We must change the way we think, while adopting solutions that renew and revitalise our natural systems, communities, and economies.
By Zsofia Kollar
In the past half-century, significant technological advancements have greatly enhanced our comfort and connectivity. The advent of globalism has enabled us to access products and resources from virtually anywhere on the planet. However, as we move forward, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we need to shift towards a global-local system that relies on the resources available within our immediate surroundings.
Ancient civilisations were masters at utilising everything that surrounded them. They had a deep understanding of and respect for nature’s efficiency, wasting nothing in their daily lives. It’s a stark contrast to modern society, where we often overlook waste as a design flaw. The traditional wisdom of ancient cultures teaches us the importance of harmony with our environment and the value of minimising waste.
When contemplating the future and the most logical resource for materials, given the continued growth of the global population and our relentless pursuit of innovation, an intriguing concept arises: could we, as humans, become a source of materials for the future?
The traditional wisdom of ancient cultures teaches us the importance of harmony with our environment and the value of minimising waste.
The idea of using human-derived materials is not entirely science fiction. History provides us with intriguing examples that demonstrate its feasibility. One such example is the historical use of human hair. Throughout different cultures and time periods, human hair has been repurposed and valued for its natural strength and durability. From crafting wigs and textiles to fashioning brushes, our ancestors understood the resourcefulness of utilising this readily available material.
In the annals of history, human hair has played a remarkable role in various cultures and time periods, serving as a resource that transcends its biological origin. From Mediaeval Nubian textiles to the Chiribaya culture of ancient Peru, and from the Mongolian yurts to the Ancestral Puebloans of the Southwestern United States, the story of human hair’s diverse applications unfolds like a tapestry of human ingenuity.
Left: One of the textiles in the Maiman Collection is a long band that has been attributed to the Chiribaya culture of southern Peru. Black human hair forms the image on white cotton net. Photo: Abraham Hay. Right: Human hair textiles from Grave 70, Cemetery 21-R-2 (British Museum EA78248); detail of cord finish. Photos: The British Museum.
In ancient Peru, the Chiribaya culture (spanning from 900 to 1350 AD) carved out a remarkable existence against the backdrop of a harsh environment. Theirs was a world where survival hinged on mastering the art of self-sufficiency, a feat they achieved through agriculture, communal irrigation projects, and a deep connection to the sea. Among the legacies they bequeathed to history, one stands out as a testament to their resourcefulness and artistry: a Chiribaya textile piece. What commands attention are the bold black hair warp threads that dominate the surface, a captivating reminder that even in adversity, the Chiribaya culture found beauty in the resources at their disposal, transforming human hair into a work of art.
On the expansive Mongolian steppes, where nomadic life demanded portable homes, human hair played a vital role in traditional yurts. Beyond securing wooden frames, it was felted to create insulation. Hair’s insulating properties helped regulate the yurts’ temperature, ensuring comfort in extreme weather.
Meanwhile, in the arid landscapes of the Southwestern United States, the Ancestral Puebloans harnessed the potential of human hair, one of the most accessible and renewable fibres, to craft an array of practical items, such as nets and socks. In particular, a remarkable 13th-century sock stands as a testament to their ingenuity. Intricately woven by knotting strands of human hair, it serves as a testament to their resourcefulness.
These historical vignettes weave a tapestry of human creativity and adaptability. Human hair, once part of our own bodies, became a resource to enhance textiles or construct homes. Across continents and centuries, it serves as a testament to our ability to repurpose and innovate with the materials at hand, turning something as humble as hair into a thread in the rich fabric of human history.
Ancestral Puebloans, c. 1200, Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum.
In contemporary society, hair salons have assumed a remarkable cultural significance that extends far beyond their primary function of hairstyling. They have become vital social and self-expression platforms, reflecting the diverse tapestry of modern culture. It’s fascinating to note that the average woman changes her hairstyle approximately 104 times in a lifetime. This statistic underscores the profound role that hair plays in our lives as a means of expressing our evolving tastes, moods, and identities.
From the disposal of hair clippings to the use of chemicals and single-use materials, such as capes, bleach packets, gloves and foils, hair salons generate considerable amounts of waste.
However, beneath the glamour and creative potential of hair salons lies a less-discussed issue. From the disposal of hair clippings to the use of chemicals and single-use materials, such as capes, bleach packets, gloves and foils, hair salons generate considerable amounts of waste. In an effort to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint, some salons are starting to adopt more eco-friendly practices, like the recycling of hair clippings.
A Material of the Future
Human hair is a natural filamentous biomaterial composed primarily of keratin protein, constituting around 95% of its chemical makeup. Keratin, a robust protein found in hair and other materials, can be a problem when it becomes waste from places like farms, slaughterhouses, leather industries, and hair salons. Its strength comes from its complex structure and high molecular weight, making it one of the most resilient materials in nature. Because of this, when human hair waste isn’t managed properly, it accumulates in cities, blocks drains, and decomposes slowly in rural areas, causing environmental issues.
Embracing the idea of humans as regenerative resources requires a reevaluation of our relationship with our own biological matter.
In the ongoing evolution of waste management systems and the growing pressure to achieve a zero-waste society, it’s crucial to shine a spotlight on often-overlooked players in the circular economy, such as small businesses like hairdressers. While science and technology have advanced to the point of transforming waste into valuable raw materials, a profound question emerges: Are we ready to perceive ourselves as potential materials in this transformative process? This concept challenges traditional notions of identity and raises psychological considerations. Embracing the idea of humans as regenerative resources requires a reevaluation of our relationship with our own biological matter.
This is where designers and the creative industries can make a difference. Already, a handful of material innovators have been diligently investigating the promise of human hair as a viable substitute material across various industries. Some are advocating its utilisation as an alternative textile fibre, as seen in the case of Human Material Loop. Other innovative solutions involve harnessing human hair in rope-making, exemplified by the work of Sanne Visser. Additionally, designers like Oksana Bondar and Studio Swine are incorporating hair as a reinforcing fibre in their projects.
Top: Hair Highway by Studio Swine. Bottom: Wiggy chair by Oksana Bondar.
Studio Swine has pioneered a method for incorporating hair into natural resin as a wood alternative. Hair is one of the few natural resources on the rise worldwide. In a comparison, hair grows sixteen times faster than the trees typically harvested for tropical hardwood, which can require up to 300 years to achieve maturity.
Oksana Bondar’s creation, known as Wiggy, is a dressing table stool crafted from human hair, aimed at showcasing the material’s design potential. The stool is the result of combining human hair with Polylactic Acid (PLA), a biodegradable plastic derived from corn starch or sugar cane, resulting in a sturdy texture. Bondar’s motivation to explore alternative uses for urban waste stems from her concerns about the socio-economic impacts on production sources due to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU).
Human Material Loop is on a mission to revolutionise the textile industry by integrating hair as an alternative fibre. Their technology facilitates the transformation of hair into fibres, a feat they’ve successfully demonstrated through multiple prototypes, various knitted garments and woven textile samples. Their objective extends beyond reducing the environmental footprint of the textile industry; they also aim to mitigate health risks associated with current materials on the market, including the presence of toxic chemicals and microplastic pollution.
Samples of human hair textiles, by Human Material Loop. Photo: Medina Resic.
As we journey towards a more sustainable future, it becomes increasingly clear that innovative solutions can unlock the untapped potential of waste materials, including human hair, in various applications. This holistic perspective reflects the principles of circular economy thinking, where waste is minimised, and resources are repurposed, recycled, or reimagined, ultimately contributing to a more environmentally conscious and resource-efficient society.
Creative solutions can sometimes be found in unexpected places, including our own biology. Every day, human hair is discarded as waste, yet the choice to redefine it as a readily available resource rests with us. This simple, abundant material holds the potential to set a global precedent for local sourcing and manufacturing, reconnecting us to an age-old ethos where everything in our surroundings was repurposed and utilised. In considering human hair as a valuable biomaterial, we not only contribute to sustainable practices but also draw inspiration from the resourcefulness of our ancestors, who wasted nothing and embraced the wisdom of using what was readily available in their environment.
About the author
Zsofia Kollar is a designer, researcher, published author, and the founder of Human Material Loop, a material science company with a primary focus on repurposing hair waste for various segments of the textile industry. Her work centers around exploring the essence of humanity in the 21st century, delving into the profound impact of human activity on our planet, and seeking ways for humanity to be the solution to tackle the environmental impact of our existence.
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