Nov 21, 2007

Hair and Mushrooms: Organic Oil Cleanup

Hair and mushrooms provide an innovative clean-up method for a San Francisco oil spill.

Sustainability is the word with a new method of oil spill cleanup sweeping San Francisco’s beaches. An army of volunteers—most of whom have received four-hour training sessions—is using human hair arranged in large mats to clean up the 58,000 gal of fuel spilled by a cargo ship at the base of a Bay Bridge tower last week.

Lisa Gautier of San Francisco is thrilled with the hair choice, as hair naturally absorbs oil from air and water. Gautier provided 1,000 hair mats to more than 700 volunteers; the mats, which are about the size of a doormat, feel like an S.O.S. pad. She collects human hair from Bay Area salons through her nonprofit, Matter of Trust, and sends it to Georgia to be woven into mats.

Once soaked with oil, the mats will then grow oyster mushrooms, which will absorb the oil within 12 weeks. At that point, the mats will become nontoxic compost that can be used for landscaping along roads.

National mushroom expert Paul Stamets donated $10,000 worth of oyster mushrooms specifically for the mats.

The Coast Guard, citing safety concerns, was not happy to hear about the clean-up efforts. “I live in San Francisco, too, and I understand wanting to clean the beach in a way that's good for the environment,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Mariana O'Leary. “But this stuff is toxic, and people who are not trained shouldn't touch it.”

Gautier said nearly all the people using hair mats have since been trained. Even so, she ran out of hair mats Tuesday.

To donate hair, citizens are invited to go to