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.