ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will require a lot of energy, a lot of time and plenty of hair. That's right. It turns out oil adheres to hair. When it comes to your mirror, that's a bad thing, but when it comes to oil spills, it's a real plus. And now salons across the country are donating their leftover locks to help with coastal cleanup.

From member station WFSU in Tallahassee, Alexis Diao reports.

ALEXIS DIAO: There's a group in California that's been producing hair booms to sop up oil for nearly a decade now. San Francisco Bay's Matter of Trust makes nylon stockings stuffed with human hair and trimmed animal fur. They're an alternative to commercial booms, which are usually made of plastic.

Lisa Gautier is co-founder of Matter of Trust.

Ms. LISA GAUTIER (Co-Founder, Matter of Trust): Booms will lie along a beach, the waves will come up, and they'll go through the hair and the nylon and the hair will grab the oil and then the wave goes back out and it's cleaner.

DIAO: Gautier says this spill is by far their biggest challenge yet, so they're directing their current stockpile 400,000 pounds of hair toward the Gulf cleanup. While they do have lots of hair, there is one shortage.

Ms. GAUTIER: I knew the hair wouldn't be a problem, but nobody wears nylons anymore.

DIAO: Well, some people still do. Along with the donations from Wal-Mart and Hanes, Gautier says the great thing about being based in San Francisco is their access to nylon donations from the city's transvestite community. She says there's been a massive response. More people have signed up for hair collection in just the last 72 hours than in the past six years.

Ms. GAUTIER: There's over 370,000 salons in the U.S., and it's the people in the North and in the West hundreds and hundreds every hour. And not just the salons and the groomers, basically, everybody is desperate to help. They just really, really want to help.

DIAO: The Gulf's an hour's drive away from the Athena Hair Salon here in Tallahassee. But as stylists Cody Traweek and Mary Rolling describe the coast and think about all that oil, they become alarmed.

Ms. CODY TRAWEEK (Stylist): Yeah.

Ms. MARY ROLLING (Stylist): It's huge.

Ms. TRAWEEK: It's huge.

Ms. ROLLING: Sound like the same size as Texas.

Ms. TRAWEEK: The (unintelligible) Jamaica or maybe not Texas. Maybe it was Jamaica.

Ms. ROLLING: Yeah.

Ms. TRAWEEK: I don't know. But it's huge. And you just sit there and watch it and wait for it to come your way, I guess.

DIAO: The salon just began collecting hair. Traweek says she always wanted an opportunity to recycle all the leftover hair. So when she learned of an environmental group gathering hair to help with the Gulf, she coordinated the local effort.

Ms. TRAWEEK: We bag it, put it in a box. And then that's how they're asking for it to be shipped is put it into a bag-lined box.

DIAO: After the booms are constructed, they're tied together with zip-ties. Then this clump of what looks like hair sausages is shoved into a long mesh liner to make a bigger hair boom that's then laid along the waterline.

(Soundbite of sweeping)

DIAO: As Traweek sweeps up the afternoon trimmings, she puts them into a can to transfer to boxes that she'll hold on site waiting to see where the oil moves to next.

Ms. TRAWEEK: All hair.

DIAO: It looks like Cousin It.

And beyond donating hair, thousands of people in the Gulf region are volunteering to make the booms. That may sound a bit off-putting shoving fistfuls of stranger's hair and animal fur into a nylon pantyhose - but that's what volunteers will be doing later this week during parties called Boom-B-Qs.

For NPR News, I'm Alexis Diao in Tallahassee.

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