The people of Mauritius are banding together to help try and stop the oil spill currently swirling off the island’s usually azure waters from creating an ecological disaster. What are they using to try and mop up the mess? Human hair.
The Mauritian government declared a “state of emergency” after a Japanese ship hit a coral reef off the Indian Ocean island’s coast and started leaking oil on July 25. It’s estimated around 1,000 tons has already leaked into the local waters, and though the spill has officially stopped, the race is now on to drain the remaining 2,500 tons of oil on board before the ship is anticipated to break in half.
While the government is asking for international help to contain the spill, locals are taking matters into their own hands by making their own barriers out of straw, sugar cane leaves, and human hair stuffed into fabric sacks and tubes of tights.
“Citizens are building kilometers of floating booms to contain the spillage and we have been fabricating these with sugar cane leaves but we are also making it with hair because hair is a great absorbent for oil,” Mauritian MP Joanna Berenger, who has cut her own hair, told BBC’s Newsday.
Hair is actually the perfect tool to mop up oil in this situation. Human hair is lipophilic, which means it repels water but attaches to anything made of oil, which is useful in the separation of oil and water. One kilogram of hair can absorb 8 liters of oil, according to Berenger.
In fact, scientists have been advocating the use of hair (both human and animal) mats to absorb oil spills for years. It was first tested back in 1978 when the Amoco Cadiz tanker ran aground off the coast of Brittany, France, spilling around 220,880 tonnes of oil. It was used again in the 2004 Taylor oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which is still ongoing, making it the longest-running oil spill.
A NASA study in the late 1990s found that 11,340 kilograms (25,000 pounds) of hair may be sufficient to adsorb 170,000 gallons of spilled oil and that 1 gallon could be absorbed in less than 2 minutes. As recently as July 2020, a study in the journal Environments revealed that dog and human hair was just as good as synthetic fabrics like polypropylene currently used for oil spills at absorbing crude oil and more sustainable.
Now locals are being encouraged to cut their hair and donate it to the cause, with hairdressers offering up free hair cuts for anyone donating theirs. France, the once colonial ruler of Mauritius, has also joined in, with an expected 20 tons set to arrive, Berenger said.
Mauritius is a small country that depends heavily on its tourism trade, with beautifully pristine beaches, seas, and diverse wildlife. The oil spill is edging closer to the country's Blue Bay Marine Park and is already threatening local corals, fish, and wetlands, which protect the island nation from rising sea levels.
As admirable as it is that people are prepared to help curb the spill in this way, this oil spill is the latest in a long line of oil spills. The questions being asked on a grander scale should be why isn't there a better way of cleaning up spills or why are ships still experiencing oil spills, or even, why are we still so reliant on oil?