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Hair Mats for Oil Spills - Gülce Özdilekcan

So far, in the 21st century, we have faced countless oil spills in our history. We have watched them in the news or read about them in the newspapers. Without being a scientist, it is inevitable to understand that it has countless long-lasting effects on the environment. Oil spills have been a nightmare since the 20th century. One of the most recent ones happened in 2010, and it was officially the largest oil spill in human history, and it was an accidental one, unfortunately. It is called the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. After the explosion happened, it killed 11 people officially. However, after 12 years, we are unsure how many people and animals have been affected by the spill.

On April 20, 2010, the oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, operating in the Macondo Prospect in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded and sank. The incident didn’t just finish with the explosion, but the oil spill continued for nearly three months, resulting in 4 million gallons of oil spill into the ocean. The incident continued with billions of dollars worth of lawsuits, but unfortunately, it didn't take back what had already happened. Billions of dollars were spent by both the company and the government itself to clean the mess that the oil spill had created; however, it wasn't still enough. According to National Geographic, in 2020, they weren't still sure about the today effects, and they expected other outcomes in the longer term as well. The technology itself used to cure the environment and prevent another spill was the same as in 2010.

BP used few methods to clear the oil spills, which were both not effective as it was expected and controversial to use. It is classified as physical and chemical. The physical way to prevent oil spillage from broadening in areas is simply by using physical barriers. They were placed around important places like beaches and farm areas. Also, sorbents were placed, special sponges, to absorb the oil on the surface. They were sometimes using the method of burning the oil since it is flammable. However, it is not the safest method to get rid of oil. On the other hand, chemical methods are a bit controversial, and people have reacted to this method. Dispersants were used to break the oil molecules into smaller parts so that either wave would get rid of them or bacteria or other microorganisms would get rid of it throughout the time. Unfortunately, the dispersant used wasn't eco-friendly either, which resulted in countless health hazards to the environment and living creatures. The side effect would be that the smaller oil molecules would cover the bottom of the oceans, horribly affecting the coral reefs.

What is a hair mat?

Even though it sounds gross, hair is one of the number one oil absorbents. Human hair and the hair of other farm animals work as well. It came out as a project in 1999 by Lisa Gautier. She was affected by the idea of a hairdresser who realized that hair absorbs the natural oil that the body produces, and we use shampoos to deal with it. They have created a product called hair mats. They collect donations from households, farms, or hair salons that donate the hair they would throw away anyway. First, they created a hair bundle that looked like a sausage, the hair would be collected in nylon pockets and thrown away, and they would collect them after they absorbed the oil. Afterward, they have changed their product to a hair mat that looks like a rug to decrease the amount of non-degradable nylon they were using. It is fascinating that, in seconds, hair collects so much oil, more than the chemicals or physical barriers that BP was using. Most importantly, they are eco-friendly and cheaper as well to produce. However, BP wasn't willing to use these hair mats to clean the ocean, which is controversial.

Why didn't Big Companies Use Hair Mats?

At first, when this incident happened, Lisa reached out to BP about a possible partnership. However, they didn't reach back to her. As a result, scientists concluded that they weren't as effective as the booms they had made with polypropylene, which is not eco-friendly at all. According to Charlie Henry, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center, the downside of hair booms was that when they were soaked in water, they would get heavier, and they would sink. As soon as they would sink, they would dispose of the oil they had already soaked. It seems like a valid argument. However, there are other controversial ideas. "Dog fur, in particular, was surprisingly good at oil spill clean-up, and felted mats from human hair and fur were very easy to apply and remove from the spills," said the lead author of the study, environmental scientist Dr. Megan Murray. It is also mentioned as the best way of absorbing the oil spills, and it takes less time and less effort than the poly-booms. Therefore, there is no need to wait for days for hair mats to absorb the oil spills.

I think that the concern about not using the hair mats was about financial concerns but not environmental concerns. Today, according to my research, there are many producers of poly-booms. However, I am not sure of the producer of the one used by BP. There is quite a chance that these products are only used in oil spill disasters; fortunately, there is a small market for that. They wanted to sell their products to BP, and hair mats were quite a big competitor at the time, even though they were producing in probably smaller amounts and working with donations. However, looking at the process, they were ready to increase their production. Since 2010, Lisa has proceeded with advancement in her products and initiated other projects for a sustainable environment. For me, hair mats remain a wise choice for caring about the planet in a better way and will become popular in the future.