Can Strands of Hair Clean Up Oil Spills? The Shocking Story of Mauritius

Can strands of hair clean up oil spills? The people of Mauritius are proving this to be the case.

Over 1,000 tons of oil have leaked into the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mauritius, which has forced the locals to act quickly. To protect their island, they’ve been cutting their hair. And those clippings have been used to create mats that sop up the oil and gasoline from the spill.

We dive even deeper into the story of the Mauritius oil spill below!

Girl and guy swimming in the ocean together
(via Unsplash)

What exactly is happening in Mauritius?

On July 25, Japanese-owned cargo ship MV Wakashio ran aground, which cracked the ship’s hull. This caused over 1,000 metric tons of diesel and oil to leak into the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mauritius.

The island boasts an impressive underwater ecosystem, unique wildlife, and biodiversity not seen anywhere else. Because of the oil spill, many of the species underwater and on land are at risk.

In an interview with Nature, the president of the non-profit Mauritius Marine Conservation Society in Phoenix Jacqueline Sauzier noted that “the mangroves on the shoreline north of Pointe d’Esny have been covered. This will definitely have an impact, because mangroves are the nursery of the marine environment.”

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In late July, a ship ran aground off the coast of #Mauritius, leaking over 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean and causing catastrophic damage to the island’s ecosystem. In the aftermath of the spill, a push towards more natural and sustainable clean up efforts is sourcing human hair, which has been shown to hold up to nine times its weight in oil. In Mauritius, hair salons around the island are cutting and collecting hair for the cleanup efforts, some of them even offering up to 50% discounts on haircuts. “After collecting cut-offs, volunteers then drop the hair at the main center where the booms are created by more volunteers,” explains Romina Tello of @MauritiusConscious. “These booms can help us corral the oil and gasoline on the water while absorbing it effectively, and the best thing is that they are reusable and biodegradable, with no long-term harm to our planet.” While locals are maximizing the possibilities of hair donations, supporters have also been rallying across the globe. “Choosing sustainable measures, like using recycled hair to clean up oil spills and not create excess waste during a time of an environmental disaster, is just one of the ways that we as hairstylists can get involved and give something that we often just throw away,” explains L.A.-based hairstylist @KristenShawHair. “It’s about being resourceful and active in turning our beauty industry into a greener industry.” More on how hairstylists and hair salons are mobilizing to help clean up the Mauritius oil spill, as well how to donate to @MatterofTrust, a nonprofit organization that works to recycle hair clippings into oil-spill mats, on @voguebeauty 🌊

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How is hair helping to clean up the oil spill?

Mauritians worked quickly to do all they could to protect their island, but help from others was needed. People from Japan, France, and the U.K. have made their way to the island to do what they could. But there’s another unconventional resource that has offered aid.

Oil booms, skimmers, or oil scoops are often used to clean up any oil in the ocean. The problem with these tools is that they’re not entirely sustainable. They often contain harmful chemicals that are left behind after cleaning up the spill, hurting the ocean’s ecosystem. And many of the tools can be abandoned in the waters if they don’t work as they should.

So, Mauritians have been using hair to clean up the spill. The method is a more sustainable alternative than what is currently in place.

The people on the island have been cutting their hair to turn it into hair booms and hair mats that will soak up the oil. According to Vogue, “hair salons around the island are cutting and collecting hair for the cleanup efforts, some of them even offering up to 50% discounts on haircuts.”

Volunteers then use these clippings to create the booms and mats. But why hair? What makes it the best tool for the job?

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The tanker that landed on Mauritius' coral reef, loaded with 200 tons of fuel and 3,800 tons of heavy oil, started spilling over our lagoon, polluting our waters, coastal villages, rivers, mangroves and the air of this region. We headed to help at Rivière des Créoles, one of the coasts most affected by the spill. Things we learnt from our first day volunteering (please spread the voice): – It is of utmost importance to be perfectly protected from the heavy oil. The use of overalls, high rubber boots, rubber gloves and masks is indispensable. Hats are advised for the sun. – Overalls and gloves have to be disposed after daily use with other solid waste covered on heavy oils. Boots can be cleaned with thinner and used again. Masks should ideally be N95 respirators, and not the typical surgical/cloth mask. Gases released by the heavy oils and gasoline are neurotoxic. – The most efficient way to collect the heavy oil from the water (for us) was using long stripes of fabric. This allowed us to filter the heavy oil out and release the water in order to reduce the weight and volume collected. – It is important to not remove the polluted sand yet, as the tide will continue to rise and get the new sand polluted as well. We must avoid sand erosion the most possible. – Clear and wide walking paths should be traced for the traffic of working people and heavy oil, to avoid polluting flora and areas that haven't been affected yet. MOST NEEDED THINGS by the teams working there: – full-body protective overalls – N95 respirators – wheelbarrows – thick and big trash bags – buckets and barrels – rubber gloves – thinner to clean up The damage done to our ecosystem will require decades to recover from this catastrophy. We call on our international community to support Mauritius in fighting this ecological disaster. We look for know-how, technical, legal and financial support. Anyone who can help by sharing advice from similar crises, informing a crucial contact or making a donation, will be greatly appreciated. Crowdfund page in our link in bio.

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What’s the reason hair works so well at cleaning up oil?

As previously mentioned, hair is a sustainable alternative to cleaning up oil. Hair is biodegradable, renewable, and continually produced by humans. As long as humans exist, we will always have access to it.

A Vox article points out, “Hair is hydrophobic and biosorbent, which means it repels water and can collect heavy metals and other contaminants, like oil.”

The University of Technology Sydney released a study just before the Mauritius oil spill that revealed dog fur and human hair were the best material for cleaning up oil spills.

Environmental Scientist Dr. Megan Murray, the lead researcher of the UTS study, shared why this is an important discovery.

“Dog fur in particular was surprisingly good at oil spill clean-up, and felted mats from human hair and fur were very easy to apply and remove from the spills,” she says. “This is a very exciting finding for land managers who respond to spilled oil from trucks, storage tanks, or leaking oil pipelines. All of these land scenarios can be treated effectively with sustainable-origin sorbents.”

The below video from Vox describes how hair works to clean up oil spills in more understandable terms.

How can you get involved?

Understanding how hair can clean up oil spills is all good and well, but how can you put this information to good use? It’s more than a fun fact to rattle off at dinner parties.

Sending your hair to Mauritius isn’t entirely possible during the pandemic, given borders and flights are closed.

L.A.-based hairstylist Kristen Shaw told Vogue she works with Matter of Trust in times like these. Matter of Trust is a nonprofit working towards a more sustainable future. One of their larger initiatives is collecting hair and fur for oil spills. You can sign up to donate here.

Moving forward, stylists can send in continual donations to the nonprofit, not only when hair clippings are needed.

If you aren’t a stylist or don’t have any hair to donate, there are other ways you can get involved. This Instagram post outlines a few.

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What’s going on in Mauritius?⁣ ⁣ I have been seeing little to no media coverage of a crisis that has been labeled ‘an environmental state of emergency,’ so I thought I’d help to break open the echo chamber. ⁣ Mauritius is a small island off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. In late July, a Japanese ship ran aground on a reef by the coast of Mauritius, and on August 6th, the ship began leaking oil into the surrounding ocean. ⁣ ⁣ At present, over 1000 tons of oil have leaked into the ocean, and there’s an estimated 2,500 tons of oil still housed inside the ship. Sea life have already washed ashore, choked to death by oil. ⁣ ⁣ Life on Mauritius has paused to respond to this catastrophe. Barbershops and salons on the island are offering free hair cuts to inhabitants because hair is especially efficient at soaking up the oil. This is an all-hands-on-deck crisis.⁣ ⁣ Please consider donating directly to the cause at: www.crowdfund.mu/mauritius-oil-spill-cleaning-2020-mv-wakashio-306.html⁣ ⁣ Or support the protection of Mauritian wildlife at: www.mauritian-wildlife.org/donate⁣ ⁣ And raise awareness!! This is an environmental EMERGENCY. We cannot keep ignoring the devastation caused by our fossil fuel addiction. Using fossil fuels threatens the lives of animals, plants, and people. We need to make a change. ⁣ ⁣ This post does not fully elaborate on the vulnerable population and environment of Mauritius. Please check out @tamsinlacourte’s newest post about Mauritius and how this spill affects biodiversity, health, and livelihoods on the island. ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ #savemauritiusreef #mauritius #fossilfuel #oilspill #savetheplanet #gogreen #voteforclimate #climate #environment #takeaction #donate

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