In an attempt to stave off ecological disaster, Mauritius residents are cutting off their own hair to soak up an oil spill that began off the coast of the island nation in late July.
The crisis that forced the government to declare a “state of environmental emergency” began when a Japanese ship started leaking tons of fuel oil into the Indian Ocean. The flow of oil has stopped, but officials are now rushing to drain an estimated 2,500 tons of oil from the bulk carrier before it breaks in half and further pollutes the water.
The commodities vessel has leaked some 1,000 metric tons of oil into the sea. Residents of the small nation are doing whatever they can to contain the oil, making booms from sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles, old stockings, and even, somewhat alarmingly, human hair that people are voluntarily cutting off.
Because human hair absorbs oil but not water, scientists have for years suggested it as a material to contain oil spills into water bodies. Now, Mauritians have launched a campaign to collect massive quantities of human hair across the island for this purpose.
All over the nation, hairdressers are reportedly offering free haircuts to residents. Some abroad are also choosing to cut off their locks and ship it over to be used to soak up the fuel. All this hair can then be sewn into tubes and nets which float on the water, corralling the oil.
On the one hand, this is all very inspiring—communities are coming together in a bizarre show of mutual aid. But on the other, they shouldn’t need to do so. After all, this isn’t the first oil spill the world has seen. Oil tankers, it turns out, sometimes leak. When they do, the effects can be devastating for people, animals, and entire ecosystems—just look at what happened during oil company BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.
This emergency is especially scary for a small country like Mauritius. Its economy is heavily dependent on its beautiful beaches that tourists flock to. Many residents are also dependent on fishing for food and income, but marine life is now in peril. Since the oil spilled near the country’s Blue Bay Marine Park, it is also threatening local coral, fish, and other marine life species. The fuel is also spreading near delicate, biodiverse wetlands, which protect the country from sea level rise.
The country has declared a state of emergency, and its former colonizer ruler France has sent aid. The ship’s operator, the Mitsui OSK Line, has also apologized for the accident. But it’s clear that an apology isn’t enough. Neither are the noble efforts to collect donations of human hair. We need to stop using oil. As if we needed any more evidence of that.