A Surprising Surplus
The absorptive capabilities of hair and fur have led to a worldwide volunteer movement from Matter of Trust as they create hair mats to clean oil spills.
In US waters alone, nearly 2,600 oil spills occur every year, on average, according to the EPA and marine researchers. While many of these spills are usually smaller than the massive oil tanker spills we see in the news, they still cause major damage to marine life, with the excess oil often making its way into tributaries and waterways inland.
In 1999, Lisa Gautier, Founder and President of Matter of Trust, was trying to fulfil a wish list for an organisation dealing with an oil spill in the Galapagos.
“And I told them, oh, my grandmother gave me an article. Are you using the hair? And they're like hair? No, what's hair got to do with it,” Lisa says, laughing. “And this was the first time it really hit me. Not every great idea gets into the zeitgeist.”
What exactly does hair have to do with oil spills?
In 1989, Phil McCrory, a hairdresser, watched footage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill as he washed a particularly oily head of hair. Like many other great inventors, Phil had drawn inspiration from his surroundings – could the bits of human hair carpeting his salon floor possibly be used to clean the spilt oil? This odd story of innovation made it into the local paper, and Lisa’s grandmother clipped it from the paper and gave it to her granddaughter.
Soon after the Galapagos, Lisa called every hairdresser in Huntsville, Alabama, looking for Phil and his oil-absorbing hair mats. And thus, a beautiful friendship was born.
Today, Matter of Trust has 106 hub partners around the world, collecting donations of discarded hair, fur, and wool from salons, groomers, and farmers, which are then turned into mats by volunteers. Surprisingly, human hair has the ability to absorb two to nine times its weight in oil, making it Mother Nature’s perfect answer to removing oil from oceans, waterways, and streets. Recently, alongside researchers, Lisa and her team discovered that their mats can also absorb grease, diesel, jet fuel, chemicals, solvents, and even antifreeze.
When we talk about the need for climate advocates to look for inspiration from the Earth, Lisa quotes one of her favourite writers, Janine Benyus. Gushing about her friend’s work in biomimicry, Lisa explains, “She always says, ‘ask nature first–nature has been doing research and development for billions of years; chances are, it’s probably been worked out already.”
Even though Mother Nature often delivers the answers to Earth’s problems, it still takes a bit of human ingenuity and innovation to figure out the best way to apply those solutions. For instance, when I ask about Matter of Trust’s founding, Lisa recommends reading My Family and Other Animals, a book by British naturalist Gerald Durrell that inspired her to become a zoo volunteer as a child. Well, it inspired her to show up at a zoo’s doorstep in the Channel Islands after high school and refuse to leave until they let her become a volunteer–a perfect example of Lisa’s tenacity.
After her years of training at the zoo, Lisa and her husband lived abroad for many years, returning to California in the '90s with several beloved pieces of furniture she’d collected during her travels. When her mother gifted her new items, friends recommended she donate the old furniture to a local library; Lisa did so and asked the library if they needed anything else, happily tracking down unused rugs and old desks. This simple exchange became the inspiration for Lisa’s original website, Wishes and Gifts, an internet resource for community members to list items in need and for those with a surplus to provide them. Wishes and Gifts didn’t survive the dot.com boom of 1997, but it did give birth to Matter of Trust, and of course, Lisa’s WALOP (the Worthy Actionable List of Products) remains an active part of the non-profit’s services.
“Every single time I find a challenge,” Lisa says thoughtfully, “I wonder, ‘How can I turn this into an opportunity?’”
“She always says, ‘ask nature first–nature has been doing research and development for billions of years; chances are, it’s probably been worked out already.”
This explains Lisa’s fervour when she talks about the potential for hair mats as a resource for regeneration and restoration projects (its use as a substrate for seagrass and kelp reforestation is already in the works). Animated and enthusiastic, Lisa is quick to laugh though about the potential ick factor of felting hair and fur into mats.
“It's a little bump,” she says, “but it's not really a major challenge because it's kind of funny–it's helped us because we can be jovial about it. But then, when people start to work with it, they become its biggest ambassadors.”
Lisa and her team's continuous dedication to serving others in their community has created a thriving eco-hub in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district. Volunteers participate in workshops and learn to create hair mats; monthly open houses guide local residents through a model ‘eco house’ and garden; and people worldwide use The Hum Sum, Matter of Trust’s open forum and social media platform, to connect and share resources.
Nowadays, Matter of Trust is ready to bring their hair mats beyond the world of oil spills. Over the past few years, Lisa and her team started a restoration project, using their hair mats in an unused military scrapyard, an area where heavy metals and industrial chemicals had created a dead zone. After using their mats to reseed the site, the Matter of Trust team noticed incredible results–the areas with the mats had substantial regrowth, and the areas without the mats struggled to encourage plant life. For those who might be a bit sceptical, Dr Megan Murray of the Phyto Lab in Sydney will be publishing a scientific paper on human hair's incredible oil and toxic chemical absorption capabilities.
As we wrap up our conversation, Lisa touches on AI, meditating on the possibilities for technology to assist in the climate crisis, saying, “One of the challenges is getting people to trust nature without processing it in some way. But, at the same time, I also love the innovation.”
She smiles and makes a fist, “Humanity needs to find its niche,” she laughs, describing a future where humanity is so connected to nature that we’re able to balance our desire to progress with our understanding of the Earth.