The Best Way to Clean Up Oil Spills: Using Human Hair

Brilliant design is when you can take a waste product and transform it into something badly needed.

In 1989 Phil McCrory, an Alabama hairdresser, was shampooing a customer’s head. The TV in the salon was on, and news footage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill was being broadcast. As McCrory saw the tragic footage of otters coated in oil…

…he noticed that the water around the oil-soaked otters was cleaner. The poor creatures’ fur was soaking up the mess.

This gave McCrory an idea for an experiment. He brought home five pounds of hair clippings from the salon. He stuffed the hair into a pair of his wife’s pantyhose, filled up a kiddie pool with water, and dumped used motor oil into the middle. He placed the hair-stuffed pantyhose into the pool.

Within a minute and a half, the water was crystal clear. The oil had been drawn into the pantyhose and was clinging to the hair fibers.

You can try this yourself and see:

As it happens, McCrory’s salon was near NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, and NASA scientists were among his customers. He told them about his experiment. NASA then replicated it and got the same results. NASA subsequently put out a press release that stated:

“In an initial test, David Glover, a chemical systems supervisor…filled a 55-gallon oil drum with 40 gallons of water and 15 gallons of oil. ‘The mixture was filtered through nylon bags filled with hair,’ said Glover. ‘When the water was tested after just a single pass through McCrory’s innovative filter, only 17 parts of oil per million parts of water remained.’

“McCrory estimates that 25,000 pounds of hair in nylon collection bags may be sufficient to adsorb 170,000 gallons of spilled oil. Preliminary tests show that a gallon of oil can be adsorbed in less than two minutes with McCrory’s method.

“There is also a potential cost savings in McCrory’s method. Present oil cleanup methods cost approximately $10 to recover a gallon of oil. McCrory’s system may cost as little as $2 per gallon….”

After years of research and development, McCrory patented his idea and eventually partnered with Matter of Trust, an ecological nonprofit. Together they produced booms, long sausage-like netting casings filled with human hair donated by hair salons, and animal hair donated by farms and pet groomers. They also produced doormat-like hair mats. These were used to help clean up the Cosco Busan oil spill in 2007 and the BP Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010.

The old way of cleaning up an oil spill was to use polypropylene sponges to soak it up. This, ironically, requires petrochemicals to produce. Afterwards, the only thing you can do with the oil-soaked plastic is to burn it, or landfill it as hazardous waste. But following the Cosco spill, Matter of Trust developed a way to compost the oil-saturated hair mats:

“We begin by treating the oily mats using oyster mushrooms donated from, then thermophilic composting, and finally vermiculture (worms) to turn the hazardous, bunker fuel waste into healthy compost over 18 months (see the study here). Composting is a viable alternative to conventional methods used for disposal of oil spill waste (for more information on composting visit our Global Compost Project).”

Today Matter of Waste continues to assist with cleaning up oil spills—there are 2,500 a year, they say—as well as beach cleanups. Additionally, they supply municipalities with hair mats and booms for “filtering and cleaning water in cities, airports, truck stops, and more. They can live inside and around storm drains, under heavy machinery, or can even be used as a thick towel. Preventing soil erosion and protecting natural habitats through sandbagging are two more skills the hair mats and booms have added to their repertoires.”

The organization also has a contract with the Department of Defense and provides hair mats to the U.S. Air Force, who are conducting experiments to see if they can adapt them for help tackling contaminated wastewater.

Their raw materials are free. Hair is donated by salons happy to get rid of the stuff, and with hundreds of thousands of salons in the U.S. alone, they have an inexhaustible supply.

Since Matter of Waste is a nonprofit, their production process is no secret. In fact they have a video showing you how the hair mats are made, using a needle felting machine:

You can learn more about Matter of Trust here.

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