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Wait, Before You Toss All That Pet Hair — Donate It

The eco-enthusiasts at Matter of Trust want to use it to clean up oil spills.

by Maia Welbel
Updated August 7, 2022
Black dog laying on its back on the floor with a world map formed out of his fur next to him
@matteroftrust / Instagram

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Have you ever looked at a fur ball that accumulated after giving your pet a nice brush and wondered, “Could this help reduce oil pollution?” Yeah, neither have we, but Lisa Gautier, founder and president of Matter of Trust, sure has. 

Gautier works in the ‘Eco-Industrial Hub’ in San Francisco, surrounded by people felting hair and fur into rug-like squares that would ultimately help remove petrochemicals from our waterways by absorbing oil from oil spills. Clean Wave is one of Matter of Trust’s upcycling initiatives, and it’s made quite the splash in sustainable solutions for ocean clean up. Once you learn about how they do it, you’ll see shedding in a whole new light. 

A Hairy Idea

In 1989, Phil McCrory — a hairstylist in Huntsville, Alabama — was shampooing a client’s hair when he saw the Exxon Valdez oil spill being reported on CNN. It occurred to him that the reason we shampoo our hair is because it collects oil, and he wondered if the clippings that accrued on the floor of his salon every day could be used to help clean up the catastrophe zone.

It turns out McCrory was on to something. Human hair and animal fur are quite effective at soaking up oil. When an accidental spill occurs, synthetic sorbents — materials engineered to attract oil and repel water — are typically the first line of defense. But research shows that natural sorbents, like hair and fur, can be even more powerful than these commercial products. If you’ve ever gone a bit too long between shampoos, it might be no surprise to learn that hair can generally soak up about five times its weight in oil. 

McCrory set out to learn everything he could about oil remediation, and eventually came up with the Hairmat — a product made solely from would-be-wasted hair that could be used in oil-polluted aquatic zones anywhere. The key to turning piles of hair into an absorption apparatus was a needle-punch machine, a gadget typically used to make carpet and carpet padding. Like its name suggests, the machine punches a plate of needles rapidly over the fiber to create a cohesive felted pad. 

Strands of Connection

Oil spills wreak havoc on marine ecosystems, and compounds derived from petroleum persist in those environments well after the spill has visibly cleared. Despite increasing safety and containment protocols, accidents on crude oil containment vessels and pipelines occur on a regular basis, threatening both aquatic life and nearby communities on land.

Stormwater pollution — wherein petroleum-based contaminates flow through storm drains into local waterways — and the pollution of freshwater reservoirs and filtration systems don’t get as much press as more visible spills at sea, but actually account for a much larger proportion of petrochemical water pollution. Hairmats used for oil spill clean-up are well suited for mitigating this issue, too.

About a decade after McCrory’s first moment of inspiration, Gautier heard him on a TV news segment talking about his mats. Having just founded an organization whose mission was to link surplus with needs, she decided to get in touch. Soon after, they formed an official partnership and Matter of Trust started collecting hair from thousands of salons across the country. Thus, the Clean Wave Program was born.

Weaving a Network of Change

In 2016, Matter of Trust was having huge loads of hair shipped to their Bay Area warehouse every day, but with soaring real estate costs and the carbon emissions associated with shipping, Gautier saw an opportunity to decentralize the process. The organization got to work on a partnership program, through which anyone with some space and a passion for the cause could request a needle-punch machine and get set up to make Hairmats for their own communities. 

Today, Matter of Trust has partners making mats across every continent. They all meet twice a year to trade tips, share resources, and discuss new innovations. “We’re kind of like the test kitchen,” says Gautier of the San Francisco Eco-Industrial Hub, “We hear from these amazing people who are felt crafters or researchers and we try out their ideas.”

The collaborative nature of the Clean Wave Program goes beyond the felters themselves. Anyone with hair to spare can send it to their nearest felting hub and contribute to cleaner waters. Major donors range from alpaca farmers to husky rescues, but if you’re throwing out fluff balls on the reg, you can make a difference too.

Donate Hair (or Fur) for Oil Spills

So, if you’re wondering what to do with all that dog (or cat) fur, here’s how you can help: “We try to make it as accessible as possible,” Gautier says. Clean Wave accepts donations of hair, fur, wool, and fleece from anywhere in the world. To send in a donation of dog hair, all you have to do is sign up on the website and you’ll receive a mailing address and a tax deductible receipt. Package up your debris-free fibers (Gautier asks you avoid fur collected from your pet’s tail area) and send it off to become a mat. Extra bonus points if you include a photo of your adorable pet with the fur they generously donated. “It really helps us spread the word when we can share those on social media,” she adds, with a chuckle.

If you bring your pet to a groomer (or get groomed yourself at a hair salon!), ask them if they want to donate the spare hair and get involved. Matter of Trust makes it easy to set up ongoing high volume donations. You can even download posters to display at the business and let customers know they are helping revive polluted waterways. 

Next time you’re brushing your fluffy friend and asking yourself how this single small being could possibly expel such a large volume of fur, put it in your Clean Wave bag and know you’re both promoting the health and safety of human and animal beings everywhere.

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author Maia Welbel

Maia Welbel

Maia is a freelance writer focused on using storytelling to help people treat our planet with more compassion. She lives in Chicago with her perfect pets, Maxx the dog and Rubie the cat. Find her on maiawelbel.com and @mwelbel.