It was the exposed brick that sold Ashley Lenahan, 32, on this former real estate office in historic Chester. She’d imagined that when she finally opened her own salon, it would be in Warwick or Goshen, some town other than the one where she’d been working for the past five years at another salon. Then she walked by the “for sale” sign three doors down from her apartment. She saw right past the office fluorescent lights and the interior half-walls to the natural light, the open floorplan, the vintage brick. “It was perfect.”
Indigo Beauty Lounge feels cozy in a modern way—“boho,” to borrow from their bio—with plants in the picture window and a faux bearskin in the “lounge.” Though Lenahan owns the space, she’s not the boss. The three women who make up the Indigo team—Lenahan, Caitlin Tabala and Nicole Pena, all born and raised in Orange County—each runs her own business within a business. Each stylist books her own appointments online with her own customers, has her own key and comes and goes as she pleases. So far, that’s meant a lot of six-and-seven-day weeks, 10- and 12-hour days. They’re working on the life-balance thing, because “it’s really hard to say no to people,” said Lenahan, which meant they were “all about to have a meltdown.”
It’s what’s you don’t see, though, that brings us here. There’s no front desk, true, but it’s not that. There’s no garbage can, other than a shin-high wastebasket in the lounge for customers to toss a tissue. Even excess dye gets bagged, and dead-ends get swept up and saved, to be repurposed for uses you’d never guess. “Even if it has color in it, everything we cut gets saved,” said Lenahan. “One of the big things I learned is hair clippings, when they go into a plastic bag and the dump, actually generate methane gas as they break down, so why wouldn’t you just do this? It’s so easy.”
When Lenahan, a vegetarian and certified yoga teacher, discovered Green Circle Salons through Instagram a year ago, signing up the new salon was a no-brainer. The three stylists, who’d all worked together at another salon, were in full agreement about that. “The amount of waste that comes out of a salon is crazy,” said Pena, 31. “From the foils to the chemicals, it’s crazy. You never put two and two together until you open your own. I don’t want to be that person that puts that out into the world.”
Indigo is one of about 2,000 salons in North America that contract with the Toronto-based Green Circle Salons, which was founded a decade ago by an entrepreneur with a biochemistry background who saw a niche in greening the beauty industry. American salons now comprise half of Green Circle’s business. There are about a dozen member salons in the city and a couple in Westchester, one in Ridgewood and one in New Paltz, but Indigo is the only Green Circle salon in the wide swath between.
Green Circle charges its member salons a $300 start-up fee, then $280 per full box sent via “hair mail.” According to its website, the program repurposes up to 95 percent of a salon’s waste and has diverted almost five and half million pounds from landfills and waterways. The service costs Indigo about a dollar per $50 haircut. Some salons tack on a $1 environmental surcharge, but “it’s just a cost we’re eating because I think it’s important,” said Lenahan.
Lenahan and I sip hot water and honey out of Mason jars as we talk. “Where we were working before, everyone would get water and they would have a plastic cup with a lid and a straw. The straw thing just makes me crazy,” said Lenahan. Here, their gloves are reusable Latex, which have to be washed and let dry between uses. There are no paper towels, just towels. Even the index card where each customer’s color formula is printed is filed alphabetically in a little box for the next visit, so there’s no paper to be thrown away.
The LED lights, the cruelty-and-gluten-and-petroleum-free product line, it’s all been carefully considered. The exception is the Keurig coffee machine, a stand-in, said Lenahan sheepishly, until they get settled. “It’s just the most time effective thing because we’re so busy,” she explained.
Lenahan majored in political science with a focus in public law at SUNY Albany. She was doing admin for a medical office when she decided she wanted to work for herself. She switched gears and went back to school, graduating from Capri Cosmetology in Newburgh at 27.
“If I’d started doing hair right out of high school instead of going to college, having an education,” she said, chances are she wouldn’t have ended up owning a salon like Indigo. “I was already an adult. I knew who I was.” In addition to their environmental focus, Indigo has raised over $1,000 for Safe Homes of Orange County, a Newburgh-based domestic violence prevention program, by doing hair extensions.
“I think just owning a business in general, a lot of people just come to work and leave, but I think it’s such a good platform to make change and be a part of the community,” said Lenahan. “That’s my focus.”
When Indigo opened last September, there were three weeks before they got set up with Green Circle. “Two huge garbage bags a day we were throwing out,” Lenahan said. “Now all we have is this little pail for people’s miscellaneous stuff at the end of the night, and that’s the only thing we’re throwing away.”
Lenahan takes me back to the utility room, which doubles as the recycling center, with oversized cardboard boxes labeled “hair,” “plastics” and “metals.” A small salon, Indigo sends a shipment out to Green Circle about once every three months.
“This whole thing is a bag of hair clippings,” she says, hoisting what looks like roadkill in a bag. “It’s pretty gross.”
It’s not as gross as the primordial stew of “color waste.” All the extra hair dye in bowls that would normally get washed down the drain now gets scooped into a tightly knotted clear plastic bag–this particular batch is yellow with a blue scum on top.
“Since we’ve started saving it, we’ve become a lot more conscious of how much we’re mixing and becoming much more frugal with our product,” said Lenahan. “We’re seeing how much we’re wasting and not only is it disgusting, it’s also money down the drain for us. I think we’ve started to think about conserving more, mixing less – and mixing as we go along.”
“If I need more, I’m fine mixing again,” seconded Pena.
The components that go into hair dye are a color, and something that activates color, explains Gary Kasper, director of operations for Green Circle. Leftover dye used to get washed down the drain, and that’s what still happens in the vast majority of salons. But at Green Circle salons, the goo is bagged and shipped off, and depending on the location, might go to a waste-to-energy facility that burns it off and collects the electricity. Or it might go to facility that separates the components back out, gets them up to energy grade and sells the resultant fuel to factories. The remaining water is filtered and treated before it gets released back into waterways – a major improvement over dumping it all down the drain.
There’s only one waste stream that actually makes money for Green Circle, and that’s aluminum. Color tubes and foils get recycled just like your beer cans: added to other aluminum, compacted, baled and sent off to a smelter to be melted back down and used to make things like more cans or bike frames or color tubes. Unlike paper and plastic, which degrade each time they’re recycled, aluminum has the advantage of being infinitely recyclable.
But profit margin notwithstanding, hair is “the one that’s kind of fun for us,” said Kasper. Snipped hair will probably get composted in an industrial facility along with yard and food waste. Or it may go on to do something even more brag-worthy. Depending on demand and location, hair clippings might get stuffed into a boom (think: a giant hair sausage) to be used to sop up oil after a spill.
“If there’s a need, we have it, we’ll supply it where it’s needed. If we can help, we want to help,” said Kasper. After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which gushed hundreds of millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, Green Circle redirected their hair to the clean-up effort, and they regularly send hair to a women’s correctional facility in British Columbia, where inmates get paid to stuff it into booms.
Human hair turns out to be a weirdly versatile fiber. In addition to its obvious uses as wigs or hair extensions, it makes high quality cosmetic brushes, plant fertilizer, pest deterrent in farm fields, reinforcement for clay or cement construction materials, and a raw material in its own right for making furniture, mannequins, ropes, even eyeglasses. Its amino acids can be extracted and used in cosmetics, hair care treatments, wound healing medicines, nutritional supplements. You think that’s bizarre? The amino acid L-cysteine – commonly derived from duck feathers, pig bristles and, you guessed it, human hair – regularly gets kneaded into pizza, bread and donuts to extend shelf life. (“If you’re buying your loaf from a commercial producer, it’ll probably contain human hair,” Vice reported in 2014.) Human hair is still used to stuff toys and pin cushions, where its natural oils prevent needles from rusting; to make bows for stringed instruments and sometimes even the strings themselves. Hairwork, the 19th century art of making jewelry, brooches, watch fobs and buttons out of hair from loved ones living or dead, is having a minor renaissance, with occasional workshops in Brooklyn.
And the stuff growing out of your scalp may have a bright techno-future: its proteins can be used as a scaffold for tissue engineering, its cells can help with wound grafting. In addition to oil, it removes pollutants like formaldehyde and heavy metals from water. Green Circle’s innovation team is experimenting with adding it to plastic, hoping to make a stronger, lighter material. They’ve come up with a prototype recycling bin that they could eventually provide to their member salons. What better advertisement than a bin made of hair to collect the hair that will go on to make future bins? Green Circle is a big step in the right direction, but it’s not the last stop. Lenahan had reached out to the company a couple months before my visit, looking for more information or training, and hadn’t heard back. “It’s really basic,” she said. After one introductory visit, “they just send supplemental marketing supplies. I wish there was more. But there’s no other company providing this service right now so we’re just dealing with it,” she said.
There’s no question, though, that being known as a green salon is an effective marketing vehicle. As of late March, Indigo was booked through mid-June.
Sidebar: ‘Giant hair sausages’
It was after the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 that a hairdresser from Alabama named Phil McCrory discovered that you could use hair to clean up oil. He knew that hair collects oil; that’s why we shampoo. After seeing an oil-covered otter on TV and noticing the water around the animal looked clean, he decided to experiment. He took offcuts home from work, packed them into his wife’s pantyhouse and bought a kiddie wading pool and some motor oil. The water, he said, was crystal clear within minutes. NASA studied “McCrory’s filter” in 1998 and confirmed that it worked.
Beachfront towns and cities from Alabama and Florida to California have used hair booms – hosting “cut-a-thons,” “shave-a-thons” and “Boom B Qs” to collect donations -- to soak up oil in the wake of spills. But oil companies themselves have balked at using hair booms to clean up their messes. “If you asked BP, the bigger oil companies, it’s more a fringe thing,” said Kasper.
BP nixed hair booms to clean up its mess in 2010, saying they got waterlogged and sank and weren’t as effective as the plastic ones they’re required to keep on-hand. Still, hair donations poured in from around the world, along with contributions from alpaca and sheep farmers and pet groomers. Volunteers stuffed it into recycled pantyhose, and municipalities along the Gulf region set them up to protect their shorelines from the encroaching slick.
Attitudes may be changing, though. In 2017 a pair of students from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology entered an energy industry contest with their project, “The Answer to Oil-Spill Clean-Up,” featuring Green Circle’s hair booms. They won first prize and a $2,000 award from Shell Canada.