Oil spills are no new problem. Ever since we have been using oil, spills have wreaked havoc on the environment in various ways. However, wherever there is problem, we can always find a solution. And a most unusual solution has been found for the huge worry that comes in the form of oil spills. Human hair is now being used in many countries across the world to clean up the oil spills which are especially devastating for marine life.
A standard way to clean up oil is to use mats made from polypropylene. But polypropylene is a non-biodegradable plastic made from fossil fuels, and producing it ultimately means more drilling for oil. A major problem with how we currently respond to oil spills is that the polypropylene products that are commonly used end up in landfill.
Hair and fur, on the other hand, are nontoxic, biodegradable, renewable, and extremely absorbent. Human hair, for instance, can absorb approximately five times its weight in oil, according to Matter of Trust, which says a pound of hair can soak up a liter of oil in less than a minute. Matter of Trust is a San Francisco based non-profit organisation that turns donated hair into mats and booms to clean up oil spills from land as well as oceans.
Oil spills can contaminate drinking water, endanger public health, harm plants and wildlife, and damage the economy.
The spills that hit the headlines only make up 5% of global oil contamination. More common, but still damaging to the environment, are leaks from road vehicles and natural seeps from underground and up from the sea floor.
In 1989, Alabama-based hair stylist Phillip McCrory had designed a prototype device that used hair to soak up oil, which was tested by NASA and found to function well.
It takes 500 grams of hair to create a two-foot square, one-inch thick mat, which can collect up to 1.5 gallons (5.6 liters) of oil.A huge advantage of hair is that it costs less than conventional materials and is globally accessible as a recycled material. Hair mats are not a perfect solution, because they are single use, and can only be disposed of by incineration or by composting into soil which then isn’t suitable for growing food. At present, research is ongoing for methods to extract the oil from a used hair mat, meaning both can be reused.
Watch how human hair can be used to clean up oil spills here:
Video Credits: BBC Worldwide