Human Hair or Coconut Fiber: What's Better for Cleaning Up Oil Spills?

Which material is more effective for cleaning up waters?
by Micah Avry Guiao
March 15, 2023
Facebook/Municipal Information Office - LGU Brooke's Point

( The Oriental Mindoro oil spill has reached the coast of Taytay, Palawan—and other popular tourist spots are at risk of the same outcome. Efforts to clean up our waters are underway, with many using different methods.

Brooke’s Point local government, for one, has since launched Operation Tulong to create oil spill booms, which act as a temporary floating barrier to contain marine spills and protect the environment.

This particular oil spill boom is made from coconut fiber stuffed in a long net sewn up like a sausage. Plastic soft drink bottles are placed on the base so it can float. This is a fairly common way to clean up oil spills as coconut fibers are abundant and have a porous structure that is perfect for oil adsorption. The best part? Just about anyone can make an oil spill boom with the right materials.

With that said, Brooke’s Point LGU is also accepting donations for coconut fibers in sacks, old or new nets, 1.5-liter of soft drink bottles, and ropes.


But coconut isn’t the only material used to make booms. In another part of Palawan, TIME reported that El Nido residents are already preparing for the worst by collecting human hair to be rolled into booms. How do the two materials compare when it comes to safety and effectiveness?

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Also read: Why the Oriental Mindoro Oil Spill Is Not Just Mindoro's Problem

Can we use human hair and coconut fiber to clean the Oriental Mindoro oil spill?

Prior to the use of human hair and coconut fiber, polypropylene sorbent booms were commonly used to soak up oil spill. However, polypropylene is a non-biodegradable plastic, which isn’t exactly the most ideal to use in and around the ocean.

This was when human hair and coconut fiber was introduced as a more environment-friendly alternative to synthetic polypropylene, with the former able to take in liquid that is five times its own weight, according to green nonprofit organization Matter of Trust.

“Hair is adsorbent, not absorbent,” Matter of Trust told TIME. “Hair doesn’t swell up like a sponge, instead the oil coats the entire surface area of the hair, and because of the sheer volume, it is a very efficient material.”


However, there are still risks that come with using human hair, no matter how good it looks for the sustainability movement. Oil spill experts in the Philippines have spoken against the use of hair in oil spill booms in the past, claiming it would worsen environmental hazards following Cebu LGU’s use of human hair and chicken feathers as boom material in 2014.

For Dr. Irene B. Rodriguez, associate professor at the University of the Philippines - Marine Science Institute, it is not so much that hair should not be used at all, but that it should be the last resort for oil booms. If planned for use, it should also be “prepared into mats or similar structures.” The same goes for chicken feathers.

“If it can be avoided, then it is better not to use hair to avoid introduction of components of hair products into the environment,” Rodriguez told “Nowadays, various hair products are used and these are part of a group of compounds known as Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) that may be introduced in the environment, and whose properties and behavior in the environment are largely unknown.”


What’s more, that hair is biodegradable isn’t enough reason to push for its use in booms. Rodriguez said that the treatment used to make hair safe to use will take a long time to decompose, defeating the original purpose of using hair in oil spill booms as a quick biodegradable material. This makes coconut fibers a better choice.

Ultimately, oil spill booms are welcomed so long as they are “scientifically sound.”

“The use of DIY booms is okay to augment the booms that are already deployed by the authorities,” Rodriguez told “It should be noted, however, that the materials used for oil removal must be stored, treated, and disposed of properly. There are companies in the country that are authorized and have the capability to perform these tasks.”