Every industry has its blind spots when it comes to the environment. A restaurant owner might throw away pounds of uneaten food, while an auto repair shop might not realize all of its recycling opportunities.
And then there are hair salons, using chemicals squirted from metal tubes and multiple foil sheets in a standard dye job. And don’t forget the heaps of hair each salon throws out every day. While a haircut and dye job might seem like an inconsequential drop in the green-living bucket, companies like Toronto-based Green Circle Salons are making each hairdo count.
Salons can send their waste to Green Circle, which will then dispose of it through a variety of environmentally friendly channels. By collecting hair, metals, residual chemicals and more, Green Circle Salons is able to divert all that waste from landfills. Entrepreneur Shane Price started the company in 2009.
“[Price] was simply a regular consumer that went for his haircuts just like everybody else does,” explains Jennifer Henry, director of global brand strategy for Green Circle.
“But being an environmentalist, he asked the question of his stylist, ‘Where do all the waste products of the salon go to?’
“He found out during that appointment there are really no solutions available to the industry for responsibly disposing of their hair, their foils, their chemicals, their color tubes, their aerosols — so many waste products that are re-purposable or recyclable.”
As of December 2016, Green Circle has collected more than 2.1 million pounds of salon and spa waste since opening, with a mission to make the salon industry in North America sustainable by 2020.
There are more than 1,400 participating salons across Canada and the U.S., with almost 20 salons in Colorado, including Boulder’s Voodoo Hair Lounge.
Owner Jesse Castro started the hair salon with his wife in 2010. Since the beginning, Castro says he wanted green practices at the forefront of running his business.
“[The Boulder mind-set] really pushes you into environmentalism and making sure you’re running a clean business and doing the right thing by your community and by your planet,” he says.
Castro says he’s always been environmentally inclined — serving as a rock climbing guide and mountain rescue aide — and community-oriented as a paramedic and a firefighter. His eco-centric mindset carried over into Voodoo, where glass cups replace paper ones, LED lighting displaces conventional bulbs, and a hot water recirculation system conserves our most precious resource. But he never knew what to do with the unrecyclable toxic waste until he connected with Green Circle Salons last October.
“We’ve been waiting for something in our industry like Green Circle to come along for a really longtime,” Castro says.
By implementing the Green Circle practices, the normal routine of a hairstylist alters very little; mostly it simply changes the location of where items are thrown away.
Before, hairstylists would discard residual dye and chemicals in the trash or down the drain. But now, whatever amount is leftover goes into the hair color by-product receptacle. A peek inside the bin and you’ll see a candy-colored swamp of hazardous materials — all of which could have ended up in our sewer system. Green Circle also provides recycling bins for hair and for metal waste, foils and tubes, which aren’t able to go through normal recycling lines due to the chemical residue.
Once the bins are full, employees put the contents — all of which are double bagged and separated — into a bigger box, which is then shipped off to one of Green Circle’s processing centers. Voodoo estimates they send out four boxes a month.
“Green Circle has purchased carbon offset credits to offset the carbon emissions from that shipment,” says Addison Messick, Voodoo’s salon director.
After sending off the boxes, the materials go through various processes. The chemicals collected go through a centrifugation process, where the liquid portion is spun out and neutralized into salts and water, which can then be returned to the wastewater system. The solid components that are left over and contain chemical compounds, such as lead acetate, are then sent to a landfill designated for hazardous waste.
Recycling the chemical-laden metals isn’t difficult, Henry says, it just requires the extra step of removing the chemicals, which is a service Green Circle provides. Through high-heat incineration in a closed loop smelting process, the metals are separated from the chemicals, and the waste is either neutralized in a hazard waste storage tank or used to create additional energy.
The hair, on the other hand, is used to offset environmental disasters. Green Circle repurposes waste hair for use in oil booms, containment systems used to reduce the spread of contamination after an oil spill. This was a major discovery Price made during Green Circle’s founding, Henry says.
“I think a lot of times, as hair stylists, when we put our hair in the garbage can we kind of think it’s gonna break down. It’s an organic material; it’s gonna go in the landfill; it’ll compost, right?” she says. “What we don’t think about is when you put it in a bag that doesn’t get light or air, it does what every other organic material does, even lettuce: it creates methane.”
So when Price realized this methane-producing waste product could be used to clean up oil spills, he was galvanized to create change with Green Circle.
“This needs to happen; we need to create a movement,” Henry says. “We need to create hairdressers that are committed to capturing this material and putting it into the hands of people who are dedicated to making sure it gets to the front lines of oil spill clean ups.”
And Green Circle’s excitement has trickled down to the salons that use their services.
“Hair is naturally very porous and absorbent, so when you put it in these oil booms, it’s amazing to see how much it absorbs,” says Messick.
“Your hair is made to absorb oil,” Castro adds. “So we’re putting it to Mother Nature’s ultimate use. It’s a true upcycle.”
Green Circle is also working with various organizations, including Virginia Tech, to find other uses for hair, such as creating a plastic-like material that can be made of up to 40 percent hair.
“They’re actually looking at making the hair bins out of them,” Messick says. “So if you can imagine: A hair bin made out of hair!”
On top of the main salon waste, Green Circle also takes salon’s vinyl gloves and appliances.
To join Green Circle Salons there’s a one-time start-up fee and a recommendation to charge a $1-2 eco-fee for each hair service that generates waste. Castro says in the six months they’ve implemented the fee only two out of roughly 12,000 patrons haven’t paid. He stresses the point to other salons who might see the fee, as a deterrent for their customers.
“I’d love for other salons to see it’s not an impediment for them to sign up. Nobody is going to flinch at a $1 eco-fee,” he says. “If we explain to them what it’s for, sometimes they want to donate more.”
Castro and Messick both say they were astonished how much salon waste gets thrown in the landfill unnecessarily.
“I don’t think I even had a concept of what we could recycle,” Messick says. “When we started it, I thought this would be cool; we can do this.”
“But you don’t realize until you start packaging and counting it,” Castro adds. “You just think, ‘Ehh, a little extra color down the sink, it’s fine.’”
Upon seeing just how often they fill up the bins, he sees it’s more than that. With Green Circle, Castro says, Voodoo is able to recycle about 95 percent of its salon waste. And with Boulder’s recycling and composting efforts and utilizing organizations like Eco-Cycle, he puts Voodoo’s efforts closer to 99 percent.
“I don’t even know why we have a trash bin anymore,” he says with a laugh.
But Castro wants more salons to get involved.
“I think we should all be the green salon. We’d love to see our entire industry nationwide get on board,” he says. “And Boulder has this incredible example to set. This is right up Boulder’s alley.”