How human hair mops work for oil spills
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Picture that drain full of hair in the bathroom or the corner in your room where all of your dog (or cat) fur accumulates. Where does all of that hair and fur go? Typically, it will end up in a landfill. But what if we told you that your hair could save oil spills and the marine ecosystems they destroyed. What if we told you instead of trashing all the human hair or the sheep fur, you could instead use them to combat oil spills?

A team of US and Chinese scientists mapping oil pollution across the Earth’s oceans has found that more than 90 percent of chronic oil slicks come from human sources, a much higher proportion than previously estimated.

Let’s take a look at another number. According to Statista, 1,000 metric tons of oil, that’s the amount of oil we lost in the environment from oil tanker spills in 2020.

Are some oil spills worse than others?

Yes, not all oil spills are the same. Also, they are more common than you might think. Oil spills are mostly the result of accidents, breakdown of equipment, natural disasters, acts of war, or illegal dumping. The larger spills leave devastating impacts on the environment, killing thousands of marine animals, destroying habitats and having huge impacts on local fishing and tourist industries.

Is there a way to save our oceans and marine life from it? How a sustainable solution might be our answer to clean up the mess and how can we restore ecosystems that have been impacted by it.

Hair can save the planet

An ecological public charity in San Francisco, California, began working on a solution. Matter of Trust, a non-profit, creates hair mats that soak up oil spills.

The iPhone only arrived in 2007. Uber only arrived a few years ago to in so many big cities in the world. That is the potential of how fast disruptive technology can completely change everything. With this sustainable solution, Lisa Gautier, Founder of Matter of Trust is building her team to adapt 2the properties of human hair, fur and fleece to mitigate a problem that disproportionately impacts marine life and coastal communities.

“Oil spills that you see on the news are about five percent of the problem. Boats and big pipelines are one of the main reasons why a lot of oil ends up in the oceans. Whether it is otters or marine animals with hair or birds with feathers, all of these fibers have a lot of surface area and they collect a lot of oil. It’s exactly why we are collecting the hair to make mats that collect oil. Once the oil penetrates into the water, it hits the protective layers of the animals that are keeping them warm and dry in water and they get hypothermia. They also try to clean themselves and they ingest it all and it makes them sick and they die.” said Lisa Gautier, Founder, Matter of Trust.

Oily heads of hair collect oil

The original idea of hair mats came from a hair stylist in Huntsville, Alabama. Phil McCroy was busy shampooing a greasy, oily head of hair for one of their customers as he watched the big TV in the salon playing the news on CNN. It was the year 1989 and Exxon Valdez oil tanker had just dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters of Alaska’s coast. The hairdresser noticed how the otters’ fur became saturated with oil and thought to himself – if this is true for an otter’s fur, the same might be true for human hair. According to Vox, he pioneered the solution with a stocking stuffed with hair clippings, an early version of a clean-up method that’s used at oil spill sites today.

Courtesy: NARA & DVIDS Public Domain Archive

In 1999, Matter of Trust in partnership with Phil McCrory expanded their Clean Wave Program. When the cargo ship Cosco Busan accidentally hit the San Francisco Bay Bridge in 2007 spilling 58,000 gallons of Bunker C fuel into the water, within hours, hundreds of volunteers placed hair booms and mats along San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.

Courtesy: Matter of Trust

In 2010, they initiated a huge mobilisation to gather waste fibers and make hair booms for the BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast Spill. A total of 19 warehouses – spread from Florida through Texas – received hair, fur, fleece, and nylons from donors of every zip code in North America and 30 other countries.

A problem the coastal communities didn’t create

There are impacts on different levels of all the species that are dependent on the ocean or the sea. Akhilesh Anil Kumar, Director of Bring Back Green Foundation and UN India Youth Climate Leader, witnessed the impacts of the Ennore oil spill of 2017 on the coastal communities of Chennai.

Courtesy: IIT Madras

“Starting from bacteria and phytoplankton and reaching all the way up to birds, mammals and every thing that’s surrounding these areas, oil spills trickle down food systems. For example, the birds that depend on these marine ecosystems get covered with oil slick the moment they dive into water for fodder. It creates an issue with their insulation, and this really affects how they live in the ecosystem. This grows up exponentially on the food chain.” said Akhilesh

Akhilesh works closely on restoring ecosystems. Something as devastating as an oil spill can impact the health and livelihoods of communities affected by it. “In India, we really don’t have so many large examples for oil spills but something that’s really affected the community was the Ennore oil spill that happened in 2017. It had a really big impact on the ecosystem. It also had a huge impact on the fishermen and the coastal communities living nearby, that were dependent on the ocean to sustain their livelihoods. Around 600 to 1,000 families have been affected. Even after four months of that particular oil spill, people were very reluctant to buy fish from those markets. People who used to make around Rs 6,000 per day or sales from their fish, it went down to less than Rs. 1,000. They had a hard time convincing people that the fish is safe to consume. The community had to fight lot of battles. It was not their mistake, not a problem that they had created,” he said.

Courtesy – India Water Portal

The oil spills don’t have a definitive end to them. The scale of impact continues to spread as the oil penetrates mangroves, forests, coastal villages and other ecosystems. Akhilesh cites the recent oil spill near Sri Lanka in 2021, “After the Sri Lankan oil spill there were plastic pellets that were released along with the oil spill, which also went up in the food chain, where fish were ingesting these plastic pellets. So, there is a complex set of issues that arise impacting the ecosystem after each spill. And that impact that it can have once it reaches the coast and starts sticking to the shore, with the sand, the rocks and sometimes even seeping into, if it’s near a forest, then the issues just get worse and worse.”

Akhilesh quotes how similar the problem of oil spills trickling down the food chain and entering the food system is to the way micro-plastics get intertwined with the food chains. Micro-plastic for instance has exponentially grown up in the food chain. Starting from the basic, the smallest animal that might consume it in the sea and then it just exponentially grows up and maybe even reaches our food system. Without realising we might end up consuming micro-plastic.

It is not just the coastlines that face the brunt of oil spills eroding our spaces. Lisa and her team for one, have been observing how even urban landscapes witness a consistent threat from oil spills on concrete around open drains.

Courtesy – Matter of Trust

Lisa notes how dangerous levels of oil permeates around us in our cities. “So, of course oil spills are horrible in the natural environment. In the urban environment, 50 percent of the oil that gets into our waterways is just oil from spots on the street or legally dumped motor oil into storm drains. And rain mixing with all that petroleum and the petrochemicals coming with all the tyres etc. Still all of that is something that we can collect through municipalities We do it with the Air Force, working with gutters and reservoirs of contaminated waters and things like that at Air Force bases,” she said.

In 2018, they moved from research and started to send hair mats to the Air Force. The team of Matter of Trust included scientists and engineers at the Air Force Civil Engineering Center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. The project explored the use of renewable natural fibers for filtration.

The solution is a circular one

Lisa’s work is focussed on normalising donating hair for the environment, making it a household practice instead of sending it to the landfill. She said, “There’s 900,000 hair salons just in the US. And about 400,000 pet groomers. Easily these salons and groomers are cutting a kilo or couple of pounds a week. And it’s a renewable resource. But in the future we hope that this becomes natural and people get paid, the salons get paid. We are little factories, producing hair. The Air Force has shown it, NASA has shown it, universities are showing it all over the place. Not only for oil spill clean up, but also it is vital for restoration, planting, mulching and everything. So hair should not be thrown away. It’s one those things that we just need to sort and use it and make it part of the cycle and replace the toxic stuff that we are using.”

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