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How to clean up an oil spill at sea


Oil is a crucial and versatile natural resource that plays a fundamental role in various aspects of modern life. Its importance stems from its diverse applications across different sectors, contributing significantly to economic, industrial, and technological advancements. However, everywhere there is oil, there is also a threat of oil spills. 

Every year, thousands of oil spills occur in water, which poses a big problem to marine ecosystems. Some causes of oil spills are drilling operations, transportation, or pipeline failures. Cleaning the oil spill is a complex task that requires advanced technologies, strategic planning, and coordinated efforts. As the spills may be far from the shore, it is difficult to get the right resources there in time, and when it comes to oil spills, every minute counts as the oil can spread with currents or wind, making the contaminated area extend and delaying the clean-up process.

Depending on the severity of the oil spill, a multitude of methods are often used to clean it up, with the most common being:

1.Containment Booms

Firstly containment booms are often used and placed around the spill to avoid it spreading further. However, with too heavy waves, or when the spill cannot be reached within a few hours the area of the spill might become spread out and difficult to encapsulate. 

2. Skimmers

Skimmers are machines that filter oily water into a storage tank, similar to a vacuum cleaner. Nonetheless, to be effective the water needs to be calm and it can clog easily with debris. 

3. Sorbents

Oil absorbents are water-repellent and float on the surface to absorb the spilt oil. Some examples of sorbents are booms, mats, loose sorbents, and pillows. After they have been placed into the waters, they must be retrieved. As traditional absorbents are made out of plastic, if it floats away or breaks, the waters also get contaminated with harmful plastics. As the Green Boom absorbents are 100% biodegradable, they naturally decompose if lost. Another issue is that this method causes lots of waste. To solve this problem, Green Boom also provides oil-degrading remediation material that breaks down the oil that has been absorbed into the product, and as the sorbent itself is compostable, it is a leave-no-trace solution. 

4. In-situ burning 

This method is simply put to burn the oil, which is effective in removing the oil from the surface yet, the toxic fumes are dangerous to both wildlife and humans. For it to burn, the oil has to be thick, hence this is not a good option with smaller amounts of oil or when it has spread too much.  

5. Dispersants

Dispersal agents are chemicals that are sprayed onto the oil from airplanes or boats which pushes the oil under the sea level and the oil molecules get broken down. However, these chemicals are very toxic and affect marine organisms such as corals and seagrass. 

In conclusion, dealing with oil spills in open waters is a cost and labor-intensive operation and many of the methods to clean it have apparent flaws, with toxic fumes, chemicals, and plastic waste. But with the collaboration of highly trained and dedicated parties and innovations within this industry, more effective solutions are constantly being developed for this critical task to save our precious marine. 


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (n.d.). Oil Spills. NOAA Education. Retrieved from

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (n.d.). How do oil spills at sea typically get cleaned up? NOAA Office of Response and Restoration. Retrieved from


Tindra Falk


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