Published on Australian Maritime Safety Authority (

Naturally-degrading sorbents in the cleanup of oil spills

1 June 2001

Sorbent materials effectively “sop up” oil and oily waste products. Some have the oil adhere to their external surfaces, and so are called ad-sorbents. Some absorb the oil into their structure, and are called ab-sorbents.

Irrespective of how they work, there are three types, depending on the materials from which they are made:

The decision to use sorbents must consider the net environmental benefit.

In 2001, AMSA commissioned the Centre for Ecological Impacts of Coastal Cities (University of Sydney) to review current literature and experience in the use of sorbents which naturally degrade in the environment. Such sorbents could potentially be deployed to contain the spread of oil, but then left in place to degrade naturally over time.  

Logistics of retrieval may be difficult in a remote area, and some sensitive habitats may be damaged or have recovery reduced by disturbance during the retrieval process. In some circumstances though, this may be less damaging than allowing oil to spread uncontrollably.

This report— Properties of naturally-degrading sorbents for potential use in the cleanup of oil spills in sensitive and remove coastal habitats—provides a literature-based review of properties of different, naturally-occurring, biodegradable sorbent materials that could potentially be used in cleaning oiled foreshores.

The best types of sorbents were found to be those with great capacity for primary absorption of oil, particularly those formed from long fibres, such as wool, cotton and so forth. Wool-based sorbents have further merits.

They are natural, available on a sustainable basis and handling, storage and transport of wool are routine in many parts of Australia. Other possible sorbents with useful properties were also identified using a diverse set of criteria.

Such materials have been identified as potentially useful in the following situations:


Centre for Research on Ecological Impacts of Coastal Cities