Sustainable, biodegradable, and cheap dog fur and human hair are useful in the clean-up of land oil spills.

Oil spills on land are disasters that cause long-term harm in both human and natural environments. They pollute sediments and soils, and they contaminate the groundwater.

Current methods for cleaning up oil spills involve the use of materials made from synthetic sorbents. They are indeed effective, but they are often quite expensive. Also, because they are made of plastic, they produce large amounts of non-biodegradable wastes.

Scientists compared, for the first time, various natural sorbent materials and tested their capacity to clean up land-based oil spills. These include peat moss, dog fur, and recycled human hair. These are cheap, biodegradable, and sustainable options that can possibly replace synthetic materials.

A project of the UTS or the University of Technology Sydney discovered the effectiveness of human hair and dog fur, which were recycled and sourced from wastes of salons and dog grooming establishments, in cleaning up oil spills. The study was published in the journal Environments.

Synthetic fabrics have been traditionally used to clean crude oil spilled on hard lands, such as various roads, highways, pavements, and concrete. The plastic compound polypropylene is presently used for cleaning up spills in marine and other aquatic environments.

According to Dr. Megan Murray, UTS Environmental Scientist and lead study author, dog fur was particularly (and surprisingly) useful in cleaning up oil spills; in addition, felted fur and human hair mats could be easily applied and removed from spills. Murray is involved in the investigation of solutions for cleaning up contamination that is not harmful to the environment. She is currently the head of the research group of the UTS School of Life Sciences Phyto Lab.

Murray says that it is fascinating to have found such a solution for cleaning oil spilled from storage tanks, leaking pipelines, and trucks. The biodegradable sorbents can effectively treat all these scenarios.

The study tested two products that are commercially available: peat moss and propylene. It also tested biodegradable prototypes, particularly felted mats composed of human hair and dog fur. The study also examined prototype sorbent booms that are also made of human hair and dog fur. The study used crude oil to simulate oil spills.

The study made three types of land oil spill simulations, namely semi-porous land surfaces, sand, and hard non-porous surfaces. These are supposed to replicate common scenarios of oil spills.

Murray said that peat moss was found to be not as effective in cleaning land oil spills compared to hair and fur products. Furthermore, it was not effective at all on the sand. Based on their study results, the team recommended not using peat moss for this purpose any longer. Murray added that their finding is significant, considering that harvesting peat moss can cause damage to wetlands.

The team concluded that there is currently no substitute for polypropylene sorbents for use in oil spills on sandy environments such as beaches. They are planning to explore biodegradable sorbents for this purpose.

In addition, the study team said that other applications of their results include further research using the felted mats for stabilizing river banks and removing pollutants from various flowing waters. This application is similar to currently used membrane technology.