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!
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.”
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?
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.