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Human hair may be the key to cleaning up deadly oil spills

Published May 18th, 2024 10:33AM EDT
pile of human hair, closeup
Image: Petra Richli / Adobe

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What if the key to cleaning up deadly oil spills in the ocean was right there on your head? According to Matter of Trust, a non-profit organization started by Lisa and Patrice Gautier, it is. They say human hair acts as a natural oil spill cleanup tool that’s extremely effective.

The idea for using hair to clean up oil spills came from Phillip McCrory, an Alabama-based hairdresser who noticed how oil clung to the fur of an otter being rescued from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. McCrory put his theory to the test in his own backyard, stuffing his wife’s pantyhose with hair from his salon and placing it in a kiddie pool.

The results were astounding – the hair had a unique ability to adsorb the molecules of oil, creating a film that held fast, acting as a natural oil spill cleanup tool unlike anything the world had seen before. From there, McCrory met up with the Gautiers, who helped bring the idea to life in an even bigger way.

The idea was officially put to the test three years later when an oil tanker ran aground in the Galapagos Islands. Matter of Trust’s new hair mats helped remove the oil from the water. The hair mats are also extremely cost-effective, as it only takes 1.1 pounds of hair to create a two-foot square mat that is one inch thick. Other methods of oil cleanup include oil-skimming robots, which require additional power to run.

This small square mat can soak up roughly 1.5 gallons of oil, making the hair mats a natural oil spill cleanup tool that we’d be stupid not to take full advantage of. But it doesn’t stop at human hair. The team at Matter of Trust have also found fibers like fleece, pet hair, and even the lint from dryers to prove effective at soaking up oil and retaining it.

The downside to using this method of cleanup, though, is that they still have to dispose of the hair mats. And while they aren’t made of plastic like the polypropylene booms used in standard oil spill cleanup, the folks at Matter of Trust are looking for ways to remove the oil from the mats and reuse them, which would make them an even better option for environmental cleanups, as they would generate far less waste.

Considering the magnitude of past oil spills, being able to rely on a natural oil spill cleanup tool like these hair mats is a massive game-changer, and you can learn more about Matter of Trust and McCrory’s original mission in the video embedded above.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.