Human Hair Makes Great Mulch

SmartGrow mat.

An example of a SmartGrow mat. Courtesy of SmartGrow hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of SmartGrow

After spending 18 years as a hair stylist, Phil McCrory got an idea. He developed "SmartGrow" — mats woven from human hair. The product is becoming a popular organic alternative to chemical herbicides. Get the full story from McCrory himself — plus, an explainer from plant pathologist Dr. Aaron Palmateer from the University of Florida.

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(Soundbite of song, "Hair")

THE COWSILLS (Singing Group): (Singing) Gimme head with hair. Long, beautiful hair. Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen.

Give me down to there hair. Shoulder-length or longer…

ALISON STEWART, host:

Phil McCrory started cutting hair in '71. And after spending 18 years sweeping the shear and locks up the floor, he tried to figure out what he could do with all those ringlets and curls. And he came up with not one, but two great inventions. One involves environmental cleanup. The other might have helped make your salad last night.

BILL WOLFF, host:

Eew.

STEWART: That's right, using human hair on crops. Get ready to meet a guy who has about 15 tons of hair in a warehouse in Florida somewhere. Joining us on the phone right now is inventor of SmartGrow, Phil McCrory.

Hi, Phil.

Mr. PHIL McCRORY (Inventor, SmartGrow): Good morning.

STEWART: So you wanted to make a product from human hair. When you had this ah-hah moment watching the Exxon Valdez oil spill, explain how you took the mental leap from watching oil floating on the water on your TV to human hair.

Mr. McCRORY: Well, it was the otter that triggered the thought. The otter, being saturated and (unintelligible).

STEWART: An otter, like the little animal that floats on its back and is kind of cute?

Mr. McCRORY: Right. Kind of cute.

STEWART: Okay.

Mr. McCRORY: But it was saturated with oil. And I was thinking, well, the otter was, you know, getting saturated with oil, then the hair that I sweep up should do the same thing. So basically, I took the hair home, put it in my wife's pantyhose, created a little imaginary spill there with - in my little pool, and cleaned the water up. Within a minute and a half, I had the water crystal clear, and all the oil was in the pantyhose loaded with hair.

STEWART: How did you talk to your wife out of the pantyhose? Not in that way.

Mr. McCRORY: Well…

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Giving up her pantyhose, I should say.

WOLFF: That's a little personal, don't you think?

Mr. McCRORY: Yeah, well, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCRORY: But, no, she thought it was funny when I called her then. She was at work and I called her. I said, where is your pantyhose? I need it - what are you doing? But, no. She flipped out.

STEWART: So once you figured this out, you're looking at the pantyhose with the oil absorbed into the human hair, who did you go to? Who did you, say, bring this invention to and say, hey, this can help you out?

Mr. McCRORY: Well, actually, what I did and I've had patents prior to that, but - and other things. But what I did is a lot of research for four years. It was '93 before I applied for the patent…

STEWART: Wow.

Mr. McCRORY: …because I wanted to know what was being used and how effective it was and the cost studied because the cost is a factor when you go to the market. And so I realized that hair would be, you know, very inexpensive.

But, anyway, there's a lot of research done and then when I applied for the patent in '93, I received that patent in '95 on a pillow. I was a nylon mesh pillow. And 2000, February of 2000, I took hair to Auburn University and had them put in a needle-punch machine and basically productized the Hairmat.

STEWART: All right. So the Hairmat, what is the Hairmat?

Mr. McCRORY: The Hairmat is made up of 100 percent human hair. There's nothing there but hair. No chemicals, nothing. But what happens is you put this into a needle-punch machine, which was initially designed to make carpet and carpet padding, which they still use it for - carpet padding. And so the hair goes into the machines, goes to a hopper, it blows it up and then lays it out on a conveyor, runs it through the machine of about 6,000 needles and it just makes it into a mat. It resembles a doormat.

STEWART: Now…

WOLFF: Gives new meaning to the phrase, nice rug.

(Soundbite of laughter.

Mr. McCRORY: Right. Right.

STEWART: So how did you come to realize these hairmats, which, I guess, initially, you thought about as soaking up oil, could be used for helping grow crops?

Mr. McCRORY: Well, you know, I was sitting on my patio in the spring of 2000. Now, I have a mat in my hand, you know? And I thought, well, you know, I've given a lot of hair away in my salons for people for the gardens to deter rodents and deer. And some say it will make their plants grow. And I thought, well, it's protein. So let me try it. I'd had rosebush that I planted in '96, been there four years that never produced a rose. My wife bought it and told me to plant it. I did. But it never grew. It never produced a rose in four years.

So I - in the spring of 2000, I dug up where the roots was exposed and put the hair there, covered it back up. And in 90 days, that rosebush grew 15 feet -this is a true story, it's bizarre but true - 15 feet and was loaded with Seven Sisters bouquets. I mean, just absolutely loaded. And all I did was put the hair there.

STEWART: All right. Everybody's mouth is open in our studio. We're going to ask you to hang on, Phil, because we want to talk about the science of it why your rosebush would grow to that kind of size.

Aaron Palmateer is a plant pathologist in University of Florida who studied SmartGrow. And we want to add to make sure that Aaron has no financial ties to the product.

Aaron, can you explain to me what it is about hair that would make Phil's rosebush grow like that?

Dr. AARON PALMATEER (Plant Pathologist, University of Florida): You know, really I wish I could give you a, you know, 100 percent, I guess, confident approach or…

STEWART: Oh, give me a guesstimate. Go for it.

Dr. PALMATEER: You know, really, we don't know. This is really is a preliminary area. We've done trials with containerized ornamental plants. And we are seeing increased growth and promotion with that particular treatment - with the hairmat as opposed to not having the hairmat. You know, at this time, I can only give you my opinion. I think that there's a couple of things going on. I think that, first of all, the mat does act as an outstanding mulch.

It retains moisture, it deters weeds. In some instances, it can actually reduce soil erosion. And from another standpoint, I think that the mat - the hair - is actually creating a favorable environment for beneficial microorganisms. I think that there's a really good possibility that it's - that these beneficial microbes - plant-beneficial microbes - are accumulating in the areas associated with the hair. And that's where we're seeing, subsequently, growth promotion of the plant.

STEWART: So, Phil, here's a question - for both Phil and for Aaron - from our control room. One of the ladies wants to know, does it matter if the hair is permed or colored? Does that affect its ability to help the plants grow? Phil, you're a guy who used to have a salon.

Mr. McCRORY: Well, yeah. And this is strictly my opinion - no scientific data to back this up.

STEWART: That's okay.

Mr. McCRORY: I know when you perm hair or you color hair, you - I believe that you actually reduce the nutrients in the hair because it breaks down. And so…

STEWART: Because you'd strip the hair, right?

Mr. McCRORY: Right. Right. And so I don't think chemical-treated hair would be near as effective as what we'd call virgin hair - hair that's never been chemical-treated. It's well taken care of, which - we get the hair from the wig manufacturers out of China, and which is the best hair in the world because wigs are expensive. They want the best hair they can get. And the girls over there grow their hair to sell so they maintain that hair because the quality matters when they go to sell the hair to the wig manufacturers.

STEWART: It's their product. Aaron, what do you think about that idea of permed hair or colored hair might not do as well?

Dr. PALMATEER: Well, I have a tendency to agree with him. However, I -personally, I don't believe that the hair is actually a fertilizer. I think that it's creating, again, a more favorable environment for the microorganisms. Being a plant pathologist, I have a tendency to, you know, to look at the microbes and focus from that aspect.

WOLFF: Any evidence that if you use blond hair, the plants have more fun?

Mr. McCRORY: Well, I will say this. Blond hair is on the average of 12 percent nitrogen. Black hair is 15 to 18 percent nitrogen.

WOLFF: So the plants aren't as smart.

STEWART: Aaron Palmateer, plant pathologist in the University of Florida, and Phil McCrory, inventor of SmartGrow. You're good sports. Thanks for giving us all the information.

Dr. PALMATEER: Thank you.

Mr. McCRORY: All right. Thank you.

WOLFF: Next up on the THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, the case of a Missouri teenager who committed suicide after being rejected by a boy on MySpace. It turned out the boy was created by an adult neighbor. That case is going to a grand jury, and we have the latest twist in this tragic story.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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