Hairdressers across Australia have been storing human hair clippings in the hope that they can be used to clean 4,000 tons of oil from a massive leak in the Indian Ocean.
According to reports, more than 10 tons of human hair have been collected to use in cleaning up a massive oil spill off the coast of Mauritius.
The MV Wakashio wreck, an empty Japanese bulk carrier that ran aground on a reef off the island nation's coast last month, has already spilled nearly 4,000 tons of fuel oil, three-quarters of its tank, into the pristine waters of the ocean that bathes the coasts of India. Since then, much of that has washed ashore in the Ile aux Aigrettes nature reserve, a low islet south of mainland Mauritius that is home to the last remnants of the country's dry coastal forest and the endangered species they depend on. of the.
It is the largest marine ecological disaster in the history of the country. And now Sydney salons are collecting massive amounts of hair clippings in an attempt to help with the relief effort.
A week before the Mauritius oil spill began, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) published scientific research indicating that human hair and dog skin were remarkably effective at absorbing oil. In the spirit of those findings, the Australian-based NGO Sustainable Salons, a resource recovery service aimed at solving the global problem of hairdressing waste by recycling hair, aluminum foil and chemicals, is getting cuts of hairdressers from Australia and New Zealand with the aim of sending them to Mauritius.
To date, more than 28 tons of human hair have been stored in the Sustainable Salons warehouse in Sydney, where the clippings are placed in large stockings to create sausage-shaped “hair booms”. Once negotiations with the Mauritian government are complete, these booms will be shipped overseas to help clean up the mess.
Oceanic oil spills are typically cleaned up using floating booms that corner and remove pollutants, as well as chemical dispersants and emulsifiers that break down the oil and help it disperse in the water. But hair booms are advertised as an organic and potentially much more effective alternative.
The UTS study found that "barriers made from recycled human hair waste were significantly better at absorbing crude oil from simulated ocean spills compared to conventional commercial absorbents, including polypropylene, recycled cellulose and cotton by-products."
Megan Murray, lead author of the study, further explained that "we believe that the external structures of the hair cuticle combined with the fine fibers and the large surface area make it a very effective material to retain crude oil."
"There is very good evidence that this is an effective and affordable method for cleaning up spilled oil on ocean surfaces as well as hard surfaces of the land," he said, describing the study's findings as "very exciting."
It is understood that a single capillary explosion can absorb up to four liters of crude oil, which means that Mauritius would need around one million explosions to absorb the entire Wakashio spill.
Paul Frasca, co-founder of Sustainable Salons, described the collection effort as "international help for the hair boom," and insisted in a promotional video that the organization is committed to keeping a supply of hair on hand in the event of an oil spill. on the coasts of Australia or New Zealand.
"What we are trying to do is get in touch with the right organizations in Mauritius right now so we can make sure our booms are expedited to get to your island to help with the spill," he said. "We are working hard right now ... to try to get our barriers there as soon as possible."
While hair has been used in "small but noticeable ways" to clean up major oil spills in the past, including the 2007 Cosco Busan disaster off the California coast and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Murray hopes that its proven effectiveness in absorbing crude oil could help pave the way for more environmentally friendly cleanup efforts in the future.
"Hair is as good as polypropylene, one of the largest absorbent materials we use right now, which doesn't break down very well in landfills, for most types of oil spills," he said. "Anything we can do to reduce our dependence on unsustainable materials, including in disaster management, is a big step forward for global sustainability."