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Can Hair Mats Resolve The Solution To Oil Spill Problems?

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On 25 July 2020, Japanese bulk carrier Wakashio ran aground on a coral reef resulting in 1,000 tonnes of oil spilled into the ocean. This was the worst environmental disaster in the history of Mauritius, which declared it a national emergency. To combat this spill, Graphene oil absorbent pads called as ‘Sorbene’ pads were being used in the cleanup operation.

Perhaps hair mats could have also helped in the fight to clean the oil spill.

Megan Murray, an environmental biologist and associate head of the school of life sciences at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia has devised sustainable strategies for tackling oil spills. “You’ve got a problem that was in a vulnerable environment just being moved to another environment, and now you’ve got another part of the world that’s got contaminated in it,” Murray explains.

“Hair mats are very good at terrestrial spills”, she says. Since hair is much cheaper than conventional materials and globally accessible, it is the ultimate solution to absorbing oil and reusing both oil and hair. Murray explains, “it’s a material that’s likely to be beneficial for communities that aren’t able to buy more expensive mainstream products.”

Lisa and Patrice Gautier are owners of a San Francisco-based non-profit organization, Matter of Trust, which collects donated hair to manufacture mats to absorb oil spills on land as well as at sea. These oil-absorbing mats are made from polypropylene, which is a non-biodegradable plastic and has eventually become the only means to get rid of these oil spills.

As per research by Matter of Trust, hair is said to be environmentally friendly, soaking about five times of oil than its weight. Gautier says, “there are around 900,000 licensed hair salons in the US. They can easily cut a pound or so of hair a week.”

Mats made of human hair can help clean oil spills.

She further adds, “our project is to divert this from landfill. It makes much more sense to use a renewable natural resource to clean up oil spills than it does to drill more oil to use to clean up.”

In 2021, the US was noted to have 175 spill incidents on land and at sea, and approx. 10,000 metric tons of oil were spilt from tankers at the global level. This year has been recorded to have about 513,000 gallons worth of oil spills in Peru and Thailand. These details were published by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration. Oil spills pose a threat to the economy, flora and fauna and public health.

Matter of Trust along with Alabama-based hair expert, Philip McCrory, developed a functional prototype to make mats out of hair to soak up oil. The donated hair is decontaminated from dirt or lice, then the hair is separated and spread on a frame. The frame passes through a custom-built felting machine that makes mats. To manufacture a two-foot square and one-inch-thick mat, 500 grams of hair is used which can soak up to 5.6 litres of oil.

Matter of Trust produces mats and brooms, the majority of which are bought by organizations such as the US Air Force and governmental departments. Around 300,000 brooms and over 40,000 hair mats were produced by Matter of Trust to clean the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Gautiers’ along with Matter of Trust are investing their efforts to expand their network from local to global hubs. It is spread across 17 countries of the globe, with Finland, Japan, Chile, and Rwanda heading wider projects to manage spill incidents. “Anyone can make a hair mat”, she expresses proudly. “It creates green jobs, it cleans water, it reduces waste in landfills and it promotes renewable resources”, she continues to explain.

A UK-based group, Green Salon Collective, are adopting similar solutions for absorbing oil spills. The major hurdle is not the spills but rather how we respond to this pressing issue.

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