How to Clean the Oil Spill? Hair and Mushrooms!

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Hair mats could be part of cleanup solution to the massive oil spill in the Gulf. In the photo, more than 500 concerned citizens used hair mats to clean up the Cosco Busan Oil Spill on Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Photo: Matter of Trust

As our newest oil spill seeps toward the Louisiana coast, it’s natural to wonder whether there are any out-of-the-box ways to clean up the mess. Is rubbing animals with dish detergent the best we can do?

Looking to the Philippines, we found our answer: human hair. In 2006, the country’s worst-ever oil spill prompted an unusual program in the country’s prisons. Thousands of Philippine inmates had their heads and chests harvested foir hair to be used in the clean-up effort.

The hair was combined with feathers to create a spongy material that would soak up the more than 50,000 gallons of industrial fuel that had leaked from a sunken tanker off the central island of Guimaras.

The method was also used in San Francisco, when hair mats were employed to clean up the Cosco Busan spill of 2007, which resulted when a cargo ship hit the base of the Bay Bridge and let loose some 58,000 gallons of oil.

Lisa Gautier, director of a nonprofit called Matter of Trust, donated 1,000 “oil spill hair mats” she had made for the San Francisco Department of the Environment to absorb motor oil spills.

Once the hair mats, which are size of doormats and feel like Brillo pads, had absorbed all the oil they could, oyster mushrooms were cultivated on the mats to absorb the oil and turn the oily hair into nontoxic compost within 12 weeks, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Mycologist and author Paul Stamets donated $10,000 worth of oyster mushrooms to the cause.

So could hair and mushrooms work in the gulf? Yes, indeed. Lisa Gautier is at it again and wants your hair to the help with the clean-up effort. Find out how to donate your excess locks here.

Story by Katherine Gustafson, originally published May 1, 2010 on Tonic.

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