The Best Ways to Clean Up an Oil Spill

The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has brought oil spill prevention and cleanup to the forefront of public attention. When considering the amount of environmental and economic damage a spill of this nature can have, there is no way to overstate the importance of cleaning up the mess as quickly and as effectively as possible.

This article will explore some of the many concepts floating around that might be able to assist in removing and cleaning up the oil. Some of the options are environmentally friendly, others are not. This article leaves it to the reader to judge which might be best implemented or focused on.

Physical Removal

The following tactics can be used to physically remove the oil or stop it from spreading.

Booms – Booms are flotation devices that can form a barrier to stop the spread of oil. They are readily accessible and often used to try to create a containment area. Oil has been known to slosh both under and over booms.

Skimming – Skimming is the physical act of taking nets or other such devices to strain the top of the ocean, catching the oil but allowing the clean water to sluice through.

Vacuums – Large suction devices just as you might imagine that are used to suck up oil, which can then be loaded into a tanker and hauled away to a storage facility.

Sorbents – Sorbents are large sponges designed to retain oil but allow water to be filtered back out.

Shovels and Hand Tools – Once the oil reaches shoreline, shovels and other traditional devices are used to collect and transport the oil.


Another tactic for handling massive amounts of oil is to put it in contact with an absorbent. Absorbents are materials that suck up the oil but leave clean water behind. The absorbent can then be collected much more easily through physical removal methods.

Hay – Hay has been known to very effectively absorb oil and separate it from water. Hay is a readily available resource and is low cost.

Pine Shavings – Pine shavings, much like hay, are an available commodity that can be used during oil spills. Shavings are a cheap and effective byproduct of many industries.

Hair – Although it sounds a bit unusual, hair (especially human hair) turns out to be an extremely effective absorbent material. It is sometimes used in a patty form for beach cleanup.

Chemical / Biological Agents

Sometimes for large spills chemical and biological agents need to be deployed. These help change the composition of the oil and help it break down into more manageable compounds.

Dispersants – Dispersants are chemical agents that mix with oil. The goal of a dispersant is to loosen the chemical makeup of the oil so that it can more quickly absorb into water. The trouble with dispersants is that there are often negative environmental side effects to their mass usage.

Oyster Mushrooms – This special fungus can break oil down and convert it into environmentally friendly waste products. They are used to help clean up oil that has made its way to the beach, and is sometimes combined with hair patties in order to create a culture that can become valuable mulch.

Bioremediation – Utilizing microbes that naturally eat oil particles, bioremediation offers a unique opportunity to clean up oil in a natural way. Current bioremediation microorganisms feed on the oil, break them up into byproducts that are edible to marine life, and then die when their food source (oil) is depleted.

Alternate Methods

The following are methods that don’t particularly fit into other categories.

Burning – Controlled burns offer a quick solution to patches of oil, but offer environmental risks when used near land or in large doses.

Inaction – Allowing the oil to naturally and slowly blend with the water. Harmful if wildlife is abundant.