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Every strand of hair that lands on the floor at Freshair Boutique is destined for a higher purpose.
Instead of getting tossed in a landfill, the clippings are sent to a warehouse in Ontario and turned into anything from oil containment booms to pet beds to bio-composite plastics. The recycling service is provided by Green Circle Salons, a Toronto-based company that recovers and repurposes beauty waste from spas and salons across North America.
For Freshair owner Praise Okwumabua, Green Circle helped fill a gap in her eco-friendly business model.
"When you’re opening a business everyone always asks, ‘What’s going to make you different? What’s going to set you apart?’" she says. "And so I decided my focus was going to be on the environment."
Okwumabua was born in Nigeria, grew up in Brandon and moved to the "big city" of Winnipeg for school. The 40-year-old mother of four started paying attention to sustainability as an adult, but having kids kicked that awareness into action.
"The children really got me to focus on it," she says. "I enjoy nature and we need to do as much as we can to keep it so kids for years to come can enjoy and experience it."
Okwumabua did a green audit when she opened Freshair on Academy Road in 2010. She found ways to save energy and reduce paper on the administrative side of the business, but was spending a lot of time dropping off colour boxes at recycling depots and donating hair to any organization that would take it.
"We would have boxes and boxes of hair in the back because they would only take so many," Okwumabua says, laughing. "There wasn’t really anything for my industry."
Signing up for Green Circle seemed like a no-brainer when she discovered the company six years ago. Freshair became the first independent salon in Winnipeg to enrol in the recycling program and 36 more have joined since — a list of participating local salons can be found at greencirclesalons.com.
Green Circle was founded by Toronto entrepreneur Shane Price in 2009. In addition to hair, the company has found secondary uses for 95 per cent of the waste created in the beauty industry, including hair colour tubes, aerosol cans, used colour, foils, waxing strips and electric items such as blow dryers. Metals are turned into things like bicycle and car parts and chemical hair dye is converted into energy.
"Colour contains a lot of water content, so when it goes through this process the steam is captured, neutralized and it’s put back into the water stream and then the ash that’s produced is turned into building bricks and pavement for the road," says Shauna Jones, a business developer and educator for Green Circle.
When a salon owner signs up for Green Circle they pay a one-time fee between $320 and $360, depending on the size of the shop, and receive a set of waste collection bins. The bin contents are collected regularly and sent to the company’s nearest recycling warehouse — there are four in Canada and two in the United States.
The ongoing cost of the program is funded by customers who pay an environmental stewardship fee (between $1.50 and $3) on top of services.
"Consumers are looking to spend their money with like-minded businesses," says Jones, who has worked in the beauty industry for most of her career.
"I’ve hauled my fair share of garbage out to the bin and then just forgotten about it.
"With the environment in the sad shape that it is now we all need to do our part and it starts not only at home, but also in the place where we spend most of our time, which is our place of work."
At Freshair, the $1.50 environmental stewardship fee is only applied to waste-producing services such as cuts and colours and not for things like blowouts.
"We haven’t really had any backlash at all," Okwumabua says. "I think because from the beginning we said we were going to be this conscious, eco-friendly, forward-thinking business that people come here expecting those kinds of things."
The salon has also started its own product refill program, stopped offering single-use gift bags and has encouraged clients to use reusable cups for hot beverages.
"What we really want to do is just start a conversation," Okwumabua says.
Sustainability has also become a topic of conversation for stylists-in-training.
"I find this younger generation is really environmentally conscious," says Miriam Giesbrecht, a hairstyling instructor at the Louis Riel Arts and Technology Centre.
The hairstyling school for high school and mature students has been a Green Circle member since 2014 and the first day of classes always starts with a presentation about the recycling program.
"We generate a lot of waste and not just into the landfill, into the water supply as well, so I think it’s really important that we have the opportunity to do this," Giesbrecht says.
"It benefits us in a couple of different ways. First off, the students see how much waste goes down the drain when it comes to working in a salon… and it also makes them aware to only mix what they need, so it helps us save product."
In 2018, the hairstyling program and school salon diverted about 32 kilograms of waste from the landfill and this year the esthetics program joined the cause.
Graduates appear to be taking what they’ve learned into the workforce, with some choosing to work at salons specifically because they are Green Circle certified.
"I do know that (some students) have also mentioned it and gotten employers involved as well," Giesbrecht says.
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.