“Let it fly in the breeze and get caught in the trees / Give a home to the fleas in my hair…” So go the lyrics for the title track of the 1967 musical Hair. But a Florida company called Smart Grow has slightly different plans for human hair: rather than letting it fly in the breeze and catch in trees, the company sells a product that puts hair into the ground, where it acts as a fertilizer and weed deterrent.
Smart Grow is the brainchild of Phil McCrory, a former hair stylist who wanted to find a way to use all the locks that he’d been sweeping up and throwing out at his shop for more than a decade. Watching coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill had given him the kernel from which he grew his invention: he noticed that the wildlife such as otters coming out of the oil-slicks were covered in oil. Why not use human hair to soak up oil in the next big spill? He took some hair home, bound it up in a nylon stocking and experimented with the prototype. It worked quite well and a number of years later he earned a patent for his “hair mat.”
McCrory found that a machine designed for making carpet pads could also work to form hair into a right weave and he began using it to create the mats. These oil remediation mats, marketed as the OttiMat, have since been put into use in cleaning up oil spills, including the one that dumped 58,000 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay in 2007. Not only do the hair mats absorb oil, the oil can be wrung out of the mats and disposed of safely, and then the mats can be reused many times.
But McCrory didn’t stop there. He had long been saving up hair clippings for some of his clients who said they used it to enrich the soil in their gardens – hair is made up of proteins, after all. So he experimented in his own garden in the spring of 2000, digging around the root system of a four-year-old rose bush that had never bloomed, burying hair around the root system and then replacing the soil. Three months later, the bush was bursting with roses and had grown 15 feet. Smart Grow was born.
His findings were backed up by academic studies that found that hair does, indeed, benefit plant growth in a number of ways. And when it is placed on top of the soil at the base of a plant, McCory discovered that the hair mat also inhibits the growth of weeds. This gives the Smart Grow hair mat two uses: either as an organic growth aid when placed at the base of a plant – it’s most often used in potted plants – or as a weed deterrent when placed above ground.
According to the company, a Florida nursery conducted an experiment in which it placed a Smart Grow mat at the base of 100,000 3-gallon containers, and then planted another 100,000 3-gallon containers without the Smart Grow mat. In one weeding cycle, the plants that contained the mats produced 19,000 lbs of weeds, while those without Smart Grow generated 88,000 lbs and costs nearly $30,000 more to manually weed than the Smart Grow plants. Even with manual weeding, the nursery applied more than 2000 lbs of herbicide on the plants without Smart Grow.
Whether used as a fertilizer or a weed deterrent, the hair mat allows the grower to avoid using the harsh chemicals present in fertilizers or herbicides.
Both the OttiMats and Smart Grow products are now sold through a parent company called World Response Group, which estimates that in the US alone, 60 million pounds of human hair are disposed of in landfills each year. (And once dumped, hair sticks around for a long time, decomposing extremely slowly.) But the company doesn’t source the hair used in the mats from American salons. Instead, according to a recent Marketplace report. Instead, it goes to China, where “hair is a commodity, used in wigs and even as an additive in food.” (Yep, the report said it’s used in food. Hair-infused fried rice, anyone?)
The product is apparently a hit with plant nurseries and vegetable farms in Florida and the southeast. Smart Grow is sold online and at Wal-Mart for $4 a pack and pulled in $300,000 in sales last year, but the company is seeking venture capital to grow the business and market to a larger audience.