Rebundle's less irritating, more environmentally friendly hair braid is the first plant-based, biodegradable braiding hair made in the U.S.

Banana fibers to braids: St. Louis startup’s sustainable synthetic hair wins cleantech innovation award

An old adage highlights how humans sacrifice comfort for style. St. Louis entrepreneur Ciara Imani May doesn’t believe it has to be an either-or equation.

May set out on a mission to create a less irritating, more sustainable hair braid made from natural fibers. Last month, May’s startup, Rebundle, won a cleantech award for its innovation: the first plant-based, biodegradable braiding hair made in the U.S.

The problem

Ciara Imani May
Ciara Imani May, founder of Rebundle.

May recognized trouble a few summers ago when she was wearing synthetic braids that began to irritate her scalp. This irritation is not uncommon — synthetic hair extensions typically contain harmful chemicals and are made from plastics, some of which are petroleum-based.

On top of aggravating skin, synthetic braids tend to be manufactured from materials that are not environmentally friendly. An estimated 30 million pounds of plastic synthetic hair ends up in landfills in the U.S. each year, May said.

“I was trying to live sustainably and realized I couldn’t do that with my braids,” May said. “I was looking for something that would be healthy and sustainable. I didn’t find anything that would meet my needs, so I decided I could figure out how to make it myself.” 

The solution

May began work on Rebundle about two years ago, and the business launched its first products in January. She discovered a way to create nontoxic synthetic hair products in a variety of colors out of fibers derived from banana stems. Rebundle manufactures its products in St. Louis.

“Launching a product was challenging because this hadn’t been done before here in the U.S., so there are not a lot of examples to consider or follow,” May said. “We’ve been doing everything from scratch for the most part.” 

Users can compost this synthetic hair when they are finished with it. Rebundle also offers a recycling program, through which it collects the used hair so it can be repurposed into new materials. So far, they have received more than 200 pounds of it.

Rebundle won the 2021 U.S. Bank Foundation Cleantech Inclusion Award, which the Clean Energy Trust and U.S. Bank Foundation grants to entrepreneurs who are women or people of color and building innovative companies that benefit the environment, create jobs, and drive economic development. The startup will receive a $25,000 grant and 12 months of business mentorship and programming.

“Ciara identified a personal, consumer problem, and solved it using an environmentally forward business perspective,” said Erik Birkerts, CEO at Clean Energy Trust.

May said she is excited to work with the partners to highlight Rebundle’s sustainability.

“It’s part of the ethos of our brand and it’s also really important to me,” she said.

What’s next

May said she’s focused on scaling up Rebundle and hiring more employees for the four-person team to keep up with demand. Right now, the business sells out of new products shortly after they are released.

“It probably looks like we’re a much larger company than we are,” May said. “We’re just trying to grow and improve our products.” 

May anticipates that in the next year Rebundle will move into a larger warehouse space to allow for more production capacity.

“We want to serve as many customers as we can. We’re trying to make a dent in the pollution from plastic waste in the synthetic hair industry,” May said. The future might also bring the ability to “be able to measure exactly how much carbon we’re offsetting by selling our products vs. customers buying plastic products.”