Bad Hair Day

Nature provides solutions to many problems, no matter how seemingly hopeless and messy. Take for example the November 7, 2007, oil spill in San Francisco Bay, in which fifty-eight thousand gallons of fuel gushed from the Cosco Busan‘s hull and lathered the water’s surface. It was a local disaster, no doubt, but the spill has also inspired environmentalists to begin redesigning the world’s approach to toxic-waste cleanup with two unlikely yet promising tools: human hair and mushrooms.

Coverage of the oil spill produced few remarkable images, just the standard shots of crews on beaches floundering in black sludge and handling soiled birds. But then media caught on to something that no oil spill had seen before: an activist named Lisa Gautier and several hundred volunteers were using mats of human hair to soak up the oil from the sands of Ocean Beach, just south of the Golden Gate Bridge.

As executive director of the environmental nonprofit Matter of Trust, Gautier had been storing the hair mats for just such an occasion. She explained to reporters that the mats, marketed by an Alabama gardening supply company as soil insulators, work far better at soaking up oil than conventional polypropylene mats, which are manufactured and widely used for just that purpose and are, ironically, themselves made from petroleum. Human hair is organic, biodegradable, and almost endlessly available at more than 300,000 hair salons in the United States and abroad.

Around the Bay Area, a total of nineteen thousand gallons of spilled oil were recovered. Gautier mopped up several thousand pounds of ship fuel with her hair mats. Oil reclaimed after spills is regularly incinerated, but Gautier had a better, cleaner idea. She has long followed the work of Seattle biologist Paul Stamets, who has intensively researched the oyster mushroom’s capacity to reconfigure dangerous hydrocarbons into nontoxic — even edible — carbohydrates, and she called Stamets three days after the spill to ask if he would like to help orchestrate a demonstration of mycoremediation. Hearing that Gautier had enough ship fuel to feed an army of oyster mushrooms, Stamets was keen to offer his expertise as well as donate hundreds of pounds of mushroom mycelium, the underground fungal organism from which mushrooms sprout. But as enthusiasm mounted, authorities abruptly announced that the recovered Cosco Busan oil, along with the saturated hair mats, would be withheld as potential evidence in legal proceedings. So Gautier changed course, securing a twenty-gallon sample of ship fuel from an East Bay freighter company, as well as several buckets of used motor oil, and the experiment went forth.

On a small plot of federal land in the Presidio forest near the Golden Gate Bridge, Stamets, Gautier, and volunteers stacked hay bales like building blocks to construct a thirty-by-thirty-foot enclosure, within which they built eight square chambers. After laying a thick, waterproof tarp over the hay bales, the team filled each of the isolated chambers with oil. Two would be left as controls, one containing just motor oil, the other ship fuel. But in the other six the team added mycelium with varying mixtures of straw, sawdust, and grain. The mycelium reacted, and by mid-January, beautiful oyster mushrooms had sprouted from the cubicles of mulch. Subsequent lab analyses showed that the mixtures beneath the sprouted mushrooms were greatly thinned of hydrocarbons, and in the mushrooms themselves there remained not a trace of petroleum. It was magic.

Already, the idea is catching on around the world. The tremendous oil spills that struck shorelines in Russia and South Korea in late 2007 have been remedied in part with human hair mats after local activists heard of the drama in San Francisco, and in Valdez, Alaska, where oil still seeps from tide pools nineteen years after the terrible Exxon spill, locals have voiced a renewed interest in finally cleaning up the mess using the combination of hair mats and mycoremediation.

Across the water from San Francisco, too, the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse in Oakland has partnered with Matter of Trust to launch a local hair-mat manufacturing plant — the first such facility on domestic soil (the current hair-mat supply comes mostly from China). The U.S. Coast Guard is considering signing on as a regular buyer.


  1. At last! A partial justification for the existence of human beings!!

  2. Interesting. Know where I can get pics or further info on hair mats for clearing up oil spills? Is it really more economic to incinerate waste oil from a spill than to clean it up and find a use for it? And does the heat from the incinerator get put to any good use?

  3. I notice that the discussion of the experiment in the Presidio forest doesn’t mention hair mats, though they figure prominently in paragraphs above and below. Was that an oversight, or were hair mats really not used there?

  4. This is Great! But, why are they getting the hair from China? Fuels are being used to transport these mats of hair across half of the world!
    Can’t they buy it or get it for free from hair salons in the U.S.?
    I am sure many people would collect their clippings for free and send it if they had available stamped and addressed envelopes.

  5. Great comments everyone, but didn’t anyone notice that the title of this article *should* have been “Good Hair Day?”

  6. Here’s a link to Fungi Perfecti, Paul Stamets’ website, talking about some of the original work he did in discovering/proving the efficacy of mycelium in petrochemical remediation:

    Look at the section entitled: Mycoremediation, about half-way down the page.

    Iljas, I don’t think it’s economical at all to incinerate waste oil, particularly from a pollution perspective, but I also doubt that somehow cleaning it and re-using would be economical either. The problems I see there are ones of particulate contamination (e.g., sand from beaches), as well as biohazard contamination (e.g., dead birds and sealife).

    On the other hand, however, by using the hair mats impregnated with the oyster mushroom mycelia as a boom to contain the oil, or soak it up from beaches, you can completely break down the petrochemicals into non-toxic constituents, and then have a food product to boot – *AND* perhaps most importantly – accomplished in a matter of WEEKS… It’s impossible to underestimate the profound implications and significance of that kind of turnaround.

    Polly, I believe from my earlier reading of this situation that the hair mats were already being manufactured in China, and as the article notes, until after the spill there were no manufacturing plants here in the US. I agree with you that particularly given current fuel pricing, importing these mats is in no way sustainable. But what would it mean if every hair salon in the country recycled the vast volume of hair that right now they’re throwing away every single day? It’s a perfect example of taking a waste product from one industry and using it as a resource in another – and gosh, I’ll bet there are some jobs for people associated with that transaction too!

  7. It sounds as if the hair mats and mushrooms may be an innovative way of dealing with oil spills, anywhere. Perhaps there will now be a new market for all the tonsorial leaving of barbershops and hair ssalons around the world?

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