Giving Oil Spills A Haircut

*WARNING – this post contains content that some may find distressing*

Obviously, in an ideal world, a discussion about oil spills is one that we wouldn’t need to have. A world where oil is left where it is because we don’t need it, as all our energy is renewably sourced and capitalism doesn’t exist. We can only hope for the future. But as it stands, oil spills are a recurring reality. You would think with all the money in it and how long they’ve been at it, they could figure out how to do it safely. But no. It almost seems like we aren’t supposed to remove it from under the ocean!

Ships moving a boom through an oil slick

An oil spill occurs when a tanker, drilling platform, pipeline, refinery, or oil-well have some kind of incident and release liquid petroleum into the environment. This can happen either on land or at sea -but it is the most environmentally costly at sea. At sea, oil spills spread out over a vast area – there is NO way to effectively contain and clean something that essentially spans a whole ocean. The spill can impact on every level of the marine ecosystem and has far-reaching effects.

In the last 40 years there have been ~149 oil spills, both on land and at sea, ranging in size from 314 litres of oil up to 730.46 million litres of oil. This doesn’t account for any unreported spills i.e in Russia etc. There is a lot of oil being put into the environment on a regular basis, and yet we still don’t know how best to clean it up.

Black waves - a close-up of the oil in he ocean water

Oil is hydrophobic, which means that it doesn’t mix with water. So when an oil spill happens at sea it mostly stays as a slick across the surface of the ocean, initially anyway. As time goes on, the turbulence of the ocean breaks the slick up into little globules which disperse throughout the water column. This eventually settles out on the sea bed. An oil spill is easiest to clean when it remains as a slick in the open ocean. A whole other raft of problems occur when it makes it to shore.


Deepwater Horizon:

The most famous recent spill was Deepwater Horizon in 2010. You probably all remember this one. This spill was one the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. There is no way of knowing exactly how much oil poured out over 87 days into the Gulf of Mexico, but it is estimated between 578.18 and 730.45 million litres of oil.

Boats trying to put out the fire on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig

Approximately, 317.97 million litres (~50%) of the oil is thought to have settled out on the sea bed and are now infiltrating into the ecosystem – including our food chain (seafood is a minefield). Some of this oil is potentially still there. The creatures that live in and on the sediment directly ingest the oil and this works it way up into larger organisms. A lot of oil (10% of what spilled) washed up on the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, oil was found on 2,113km out of 5,930km (35%) shoreline surveyed. Coastal wetlands in the Gulf are an important habitat for numerous species, these were heavily impacted by the oil spill as they are far more difficult to clean and more fragile than a beach.


Environmental impact:

Crude oil is an incredibly toxic substance. If it was released into your body, it would probably do you some damage. This is what happened to large amount of marine life in and around the Gulf of Mexico. Between 27,000 and 65,000 Kemp’s ridley sea turtle died as an immediate result of the spill. 12% of Brown Pelicans and 32% of the Laughing Gulls populations in the northern gulf were wiped out. Up to 800,000 birds are thought to have died as a result of the oil spill.

A pelican that has been covered in oil and is visibly distressed

Impacts are still being felt in the ecosystems. The poisons that were released in the water have done lasting damage to wildlife communities. Marine species have shown the most notable damage – some now showing signs of genetic mutations from the toxicants. Fish species such as Mahi-Mahi, Gulf Kilifish, Bluefin Tuna, and Yellowfin Tuna have all shown signs of abnormal development. The chemical oil dispersants that were released into the water have been found in sea birds egg in multiple sites in North America. Just because the oil looks like it’s gone, doesn’t mean it is. Coral reefs in different locations in the Gulf have shown significant oil damage. The oil has been linked to increased strandings of whales and dolphins as a result of infection. Dolphins are being found dead four times as frequently than the historical average, and the incidence of dolphin stillbirth is also increasing.Only time will tell the true extent of the impact that this oil spill (and others) has had on the ocean.

Many local economies were practically destroyed by the oil spill – fisheries and tourism the most notably. But, the overall economy actually was positively impacted – the money lost locally was far outstripped by the money poured into the clean up effort. The initial cost of cleaning up the water and shorelines of the Gulf of Mexico was USD$14 billion. The total cost of clean up and reparations has totalled USD$65 billion this year, and for a company that’s worth USD$147 billion, that’s quite a sizeable dent. Fortunately for BP, the rising oil prices should cover any damage to their profit margins.



A primary method of cleaning the spill was treating the oil with 8.6 billion litres of chemical dispersants to break the slick into smaller droplets. This was done to try and prevent the oil covering marine life and shorelines. However, this does not remove any oil, it just makes it less immediately problematic – it will still cause problems for coral and anything ingesting it. Also, the dispersants themselves add to the toxicity of the disaster, as the chemicals used (Corexit) have been cause genetic mutations and are carcinogenic.

Crude oil covering a beach - a shovel is used to remove

Another method employed to combat oil sills is to release adsorbant plastics into the spill to adsorb some of the oil. This is method is also controversial as the marine plastics problem is bad enough without willingly putting further plastic into the ocean. Many containment booms are also deployed to either protect sensitive areas or keep the oil from spreading. In areas away from structures or land, oil can be burned off. Any oil that reached the shorelines was manually removed with shovels or pressure washers. We did not ‘clean’ up much of the oil, simply redistributed it – it is still out there working it’s evil magic on poor, unsuspecting sea life.

Oil-coated birds are treated with dish soap, charcoal solutions, anitbiotics, and forced to swallow Pepto-Bismol. But it has been found that cleaning birds of the oil is as harmful to their immune system as it building up in their liver and kidneys. It is better just to kill any oil coated bird – for their sake. I mean, obviously, people won’t just let these birds die and will try all they can to save them but it is likely most will die anyway.


Using human hair:

When you go to get your hair cut you sit there as all your hard-grown hair falls to the floor. What happens to it after you leave though? It most likely just gets swept up and put into the bin (unless, of course, your hairdresser is knitting some kind of jumper with it). Hair is something that humans continue to produce and will continue to chop off. Over 300,000kg of animal and human hair is cut off everyday in the US alone, so surely we should be able to find something useful to do with it?

It has been found that hair is really good at collecting oil (most of you are probably all too aware of this). Hair adsorbs (rather than absorbs oil) meaning the oil collects on the surface of the hair, allowing the oil to recovered once collected. Human hair is much more adsorbant than animal fur/hair and feathers. It is also very cheap as hair is a waste product – nobody really wants the hair they’ve paid to have removed, whereas animal hair is in demand. AND with nearly 8 billion people on the planet, that is a whole lotta hair which could be put to good use!

A mountain on hair booms for oil spills

This idea has been tested by NASA and found that you could adsorb 7 litres of crude oil very quickly with 1kg of human hair. So, to adsorb all of the oil that was released during Deepwater Horizon you would need 82.6 billion kg of human hair. Assuming that each person on Earth has about 1kg of hair, that they are suddenly willing to donate, there still wouldn’t be enough. BUT hair is reusable (who would have thought), the oil adsorbed can be wringed from the hair and it can be reused! Once the hair booms have fulfilled their purpose they are fed to worms to be broken down into fertiliser. Considering that the 2010 oil spill was a particularly lengthy one (87 days), that would be plenty of time to clean up and reclaim a substantial amount of oil.



Matter of Trust:

Matter of Trust is a charity which runs an international programme, Clean Waves, to collect off-cuts from hairdressers, pet groomers, sheep farmers, etc. They use this hair and recycled nylon stockings to make containment booms. These booms were used unofficially during the Deepwater Horizon spill as there wasn’t enough of the conventional ones.

Ask your hairstylist what they do with the off-cuts of hair, if they are just sending them to landfill then recommend that they connect with Matter of Trust. We really don’t know when the next big oil spill disaster is going to happen so we should be prepared!


Until we break away from our dependence on oil, we are going to keep cleaning up a mess with one hand, while we create one with the other. This shift away from oil is a long way off, if at all possible, unfortunately. Oil is being dumped into our environment almost continually – so much so that any efforts to ‘clean’ up oil spill seem borderline pointless. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying! Avenues that are less environmentally impactful such as using human hair are ones we should be exploring further and investing in! It doesn’t make sense to clean-up a chemical disaster by throwing more chemicals at it.

If you have anything else to add, let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to sign up to my mailing list for a monthly recap of my blog and a few articles I found interesting!

Jessica xx

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16 thoughts on “Giving Oil Spills A Haircut

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