Cleaning Up Oil Spills with Mushrooms and Hair!

Author: Yuka Yoneda

The massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has spurred scientists and engineers to consider numerous solutions to clean up the slick — from erecting a giant underwater dome to contain the spill to setting it on fire (update: according to the Washington Post, it looks like the Coast Guard is going ahead with their plan to set the oil spill ablaze). But what if the slick could be cleaned up in a way that is totally organic? One very unusual solution calls for the use of mushrooms and hair (yes, mushrooms and hair) to absorb the oil. The technique is tried and true — it was actually used in the Cosco Busan oil spill of ‘07!

The recent Cosco Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay may have just met its match in an eco-cleaning solution that uses human hair and mushrooms! A group of intrepid volunteers has embarked on a project to clean up oil at San Francisco’s beaches using an unusual, yet totally organic, method of waste removal: hair mats and mushrooms. Using mats made of hair, the volunteers are able to absorb slicks of oil on the shore that have washed up since the Cosco Busan cargo ship sideswiped the base of the Bay Bridge last week, spilling 58,000 gallons of oil.

Hair naturally absorbs oil from air and water and acts as the perfect sponge for an oil slick, according to Lisa Gautier of San Francisco, who donated 1,000 hair mats to volunteers. The spongy hair mats, apparently, feel like an S.O.S pad and are about the size of a doormat. Once the mats are soaked with the oily black gunk, oyster mushrooms will be placed on the mats and will grow and absorb the oil. The mushrooms will take approximately 12 weeks to absorb all of the oil, converting the oily hair mats into nontoxic compost. A national mushroom expert named Paul Stamets donated $10,000 worth of oyster mushrooms to the clean-up effort when he heard of the project and Lisa Gautier’s work.

If you are wondering why Lisa Gautier happened to have 1,000 human hair mats lying around, here’s why: The woman runs a nonprofit called Matter of Trust, which matches donations from businesses with needy nonprofits. For a previous project, Gautier had collected human hair from Bay Area hair salons and turned them into hair mats for the San Francisco Department of the Environment to use to absorb motor oil.

How fabulous is this? If only hair and mushrooms could clean up all of our toxic waste problems.

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