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Guerillas on the Beach


Ocean lovers help clean an oil-covered beach with an eco-friendly fiber that grows on you.


By Josie Garthwaite



When the container ship Cosco Busan struck the Oakland Bay Bridge on Wednesday, November 7, it ripped a gash in its tank and spilled 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the Northern California coastal zone. Official cleanup teams were quickly deployed, but they couldn’t tackle every beach. Days after the accident, some beaches, like Ocean Beach, remained virtually untouched by cleanup crews.

“The community was getting very upset,” says Monica Lee, whose blog, Zuna Surf, reaches at least 2,000 Bay Area surfers. “Ocean Beach hadn’t been closed yet, so people were still surfing. Kids were running around in the sand getting oil all over their feet and hands. Dogs were getting oil on their paws and licking up oil. People were out there enjoying the beach, not knowing it was contaminated.”

In response, local organizations enlisted the help of volunteers to sop up the oil on the shores of Ocean Beach. Matter of Trust, a local charity that links nonprofits with in-kind donations, supplied more than 2,000 oil-absorbing, woven hair mats while Lee rallied surfers to the cause. Founders of Kill the Spill, a website created in response to the oil spill, provided on-site leadership and connected with officials from the EPA to ensure proper training and certification for volunteers.

Soon, dozens of local residents traded surfboards and sand pails for kitchen utensils, litter-box scoopers, and the hair mats. In a guerilla effort, they began cleansing oil-covered beaches officials hadn’t yet reached. By Sunday, organizers say more than 500 volunteers were tackling San Francisco’s three-and-a-half mile long Ocean Beach.

The hair mats provided a biodegradable, all-natural alternative to the tools typically used for shoreline cleanup, like chemicals and synthetics.

“It is not a composite material or a liquid chemical, so there is not a risk of introducing a new chemical to a beach,” says Lisa Gautier, founder and president of Matter of Trust. “It’s just hair.”

Still, the state Department of Fish and Game required the group to apply for a license to use the mats for the cleanup. “I think it’s a good idea that people have licenses,” Gautier says. “But in this case it’s like saying you have to have a license to have a tomato on the beach.”

Traditional absorbent mats are made from polypropylene, and are usually burned after use (with special filters to limit pollution). But the hair mats can be composted with the help of toxin-chomping mushrooms. To help with their eco disposal, mycologist Paul Stamets of Fungi Perfecti donated $10,000 worth of oyster mushrooms to Matter of Trust.

According to Steve Calanog, chief of the EPA emergency response section, and Carlos Fonseca, an oil prevention specialist with the California Department of Fish and Game, polypropylene is one of the most widely used synthetic products because of its high oil pickup and retention capacity, and relatively low water uptake. Other traditional tools used for shoreline cleanup include kitty-litter-like pulverized clay, hay bales, and cotton rags.

As for hair mats, Calanog says the oil spill response community recognizes them as “good sorbent material” and has used them for past spills. The city donated 800 hair mats to official cleanup crews for this spill, who used them along with traditional materials to sop up the sticky globs.  

From Gautier’s vantage point, however, hair mats provided more than just another tool in the kit. “Everyone wants the mats now because they work so much better than what they have been using.” Even better? “They’re green.”