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ENVIRONMENT

How France is using 40 tonnes of human hair to clean up the oceans

In the town of Brignoles in southeast France, 40 tonnes of human hair are stacked in a warehouse - discarded locks sent in from salons far and wide under an innovative recycling scheme.

How France is using 40 tonnes of human hair to clean up the oceans
Photo: AFP

After a successful trial in the nearby port of Cavalaire-sur-Mer, the hair is destined to be stuffed into nylon stockings to make floating tubes that will line harbours to mop up ocean oil pollution.

“Hair is lipophilic, which means it absorbs fats and hydrocarbons,” said Thierry Gras, a hairdresser in Saint-Zacharie near Brignoles and founder of the project Coiffeurs Justes (Fair Hairdressers).

Thierry Gras in his salon. Photo: AFP

Awaiting the green light from labour inspectors and anti-pollution officials, Gras hopes to start large-scale production of the tubes before year-end and so help fight against pollution.

He plans to sell the forearm-length tubes, which can each absorb eight times their weight in oil, for €9 apiece.

At the Brignoles warehouse, paper bags are filled with two kilogrammes of hair each, waste from thousands of participating hairdressers from all over France – including Gras's own – as well as Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg.

The bags are then sent to another site a few streets away, where formerly-unemployed people and school dropouts are paid to make the absorbant tubes.

Gras plans to reinvest half of the sale price of the tubes in the employment centre.

According to the stylist, each hairdresser on average produces about 29 kilogrammes of hair waste every year, most of it ending up in the trash.

Last year, scientists found that discarded human hair was likely to blame for a strange phenomenon of missing toes among Paris pigeons. The birds appear to get entangled in the discarded locks, cutting off blood flow to their extremities.

While snipping away at a client's hair, Gras told AFP his appetite for fighting pollution was awakened in childhood by the 1978 stranding of the Amoco Cadiz tanker off France's Brittany coast.

For perhaps the first time ever, human hair was employed in the effort to mop up the more than 200,000 tonnes of spilled oil.

When he became a hairdresser later, Gras was shocked to discover there was no recycling facility for hair waste – which can also be used as fertiliser, isolation material, concrete reinforcement or in water filtration.

Gras thus came up with the idea of creating hair-filled oil absorbers, and in 2015 founded his association.

It has some 3,300 contributing salons to date.

The tubes, Gras explained, “can be used in case of a serious oil spill, such as the one in Mauritius recently, but the idea here is to remove micro-pollution on a continuous basis” in ports.

The Japanese-owned MV Wakashio ran aground on a coral reef off Mauritius on July 25, spilling over 1,000 tonnes of oil into a protected marine park boasting mangrove forests and endangered species.

Volunteers used makeshift sponges stuffed with straw and hair to try and suck up the oil until authorities stopped the practice.

In Cavalaire, a dozen tubes are already in use, serving as a pilot for the project.

Philippe Leonelli, the mayor of the seaside town and CEO of its port, is happy to have a new method for soaking up the oil leaked from the engines of some 1,100 boats docked in the port.

“The traditional method (using large sponges made from polymer) are products that are not reusable and which we discard” after use, he said.

The hair sponges, on the other hand, are washable and reusable “about ten times”.

“We are all in search of reusable methods so as not to overburden our territory and our land” with waste product storage, added the mayor.

Several river and ocean ports in France have already shown an interest in purchasing the tubes, said Gras.

According to a NASA study published in 1998, 11,340 kilogrammes of hair should be able to absorb some 170,000 gallons of spilled oil.

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ENVIRONMENT

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought – conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.

“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and … adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.

The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.

“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.

“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilised against the flames… These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.

In total, 361 foreign firefighters were  dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.

A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.

Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.

It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July – the driest month seen in France since 1961 – before being contained, but it continued to smoulder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.

Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.

Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.

“Gigantic”
“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.

On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.

“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic… And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.

With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40C on Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.

Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.

The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.

The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the centre of the country.

It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).

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