Project to convert oil-soaked hair mats, mushrooms into dirt

Preparing the compost bins to begin make the “lasagna” of oily toxic mix. Lisa Gautier, who is leading the charge to use human hair mats to soak up oil from the Bay Area spill, has been invited to compost the saturated hair mats with mushrooms at the Presidio. Work begins on the composting bins the volunteers are constructing to hold the toxic mix.


The Presidio national park has welcomed a group of eco-volunteers to compost a huge pile of human hair mats they used to clean oily San Francisco beaches in the wake of the fuel oil spill earlier this month.

Lisa Gautier, along with a group of surfers, neighbors and guerrilla activists, used the hair mats to soak up oil that had washed ashore when the Cosco Busan container ship sideswiped a tower of the Bay Bridge.
They plan to harvest oyster mushrooms on the mats to turn the pile into compost – a process that takes about three months.

Now Gautier just needs to wade through some red tape. She needs permission from the owner of the wayward ship to take the collected waste from a storage facility in Oakland and compost some of it in one of the nation’s most picturesque parks. Gautier estimates she can get rid of five 55-gallon drums of waste.

She may need a permit from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to handle the fuel if tests determine the oil is hazardous. Tests results are expected in about a week.

There’s a chance the collected fuel won’t test hazardous, according to Andrew Bertha-Hicks, a California hazardous substances engineer. In that case, Gautier is free to compost with city permission.

“I’m getting a lot of help from the city expediting the permit process, but I just need that green light,” Gautier said.

While the Coast Guard was keeping beach cleanup volunteers without toxic substance training away from the shores, more than 700 people were so taken with hair mat bioremediation that they went ahead and cleaned up oil with them anyway. Many got training eventually.

“This whole thing was so grassroots, and people really thought it was something they could do to help,” Gautier said. “Everybody has hair, and people are really ready right now to be in touch with something that is back to basics.”

Until now, Gautier, who runs a nonprofit, Matter of Trust, that routes donated business castoffs to needy causes, was searching for a place to compost the mats.

“What she’s doing sounds like a good fit with what the Presidio already does – we are committed to alternative methods for landscaping and using nontoxic systems,” said Presidio spokeswoman Dana Polk.

“With the spill literally on our front door at Crissy Field, we thought this would be a good collaboration,” Polk said.

The Presidio Trust has offered a 30-by-30-foot space on the western side of the park, in an area where the park already composts its fallen trees and landscape waste. Most of the compost gets churned back into parkland as fertilizer.

Gautier had 1,000 human hair mats on hand when the ship spilled 58,000 gallons of fuel into the bay. Until she found an emergency use for the hair mats, Gautier collected human hair from Bay Area salons and sent it to Georgia to be woven into mats, which she then gave to the San Francisco Department of the Environment to absorb used motor oil.

National mushroom expert Paul Stamets was in town the weekend after the spill for the Green Festival, heard of Gautier’s work and donated $10,000 worth of oyster mushrooms to harvest on the oily hair mats.

Over time, the mushrooms absorb the oil and compost along with the hair to form dirt. The resulting soil may not be good enough to grow carrots in but is certainly good enough to use for landscaping along roads, Gautier said.

Gautier is eager to get started. She has a pile of mushrooms waiting at the Presidio and another big shipment coming in Thursday.

Meanwhile, the hair keeps piling up. News of her work has spread internationally. Salons are mailing her boxes of hair, and people are sending their locks in envelopes.

Gautier’s put 500 pounds of newly donated hair in a warehouse, and is in talks with the St. Vincent de Paul Society to buy a machine that will allow her to make her own hair mats instead of contracting the work. She wants to hire ex-cons to make the hair mats in the Bay Area.

“If the officials had gotten the hair mats into the water immediately after the spill before it hit the sand, this would have been a totally different situation,” she said.