Fifteen years ago when Lisa Gautier donated her rug to John Muir School, which was in dire need of one for its library, she discovered that the struggling school could use more than a rug.
Gautier asked the school staff to prepare a list of supplies and materials they needed and went on to collect them from various donors. She quickly found out that there are more donors willing to give up items than people in need.
“Everywhere I went I was getting more stuff than I was asking for,” said Gautier.
Noting this imbalance, Gautier enlisted the help of her husband Patrice Gautier, an engineer at Apple Inc., to create Excess Access — a national online network that connects those who want to donate items with others nearby that need them. Users can sign up as either recipients or donors and the service automatically matches requests with available donations.
“There’s this huge disconnect between how much people want to give away or get rid of and how much need there is in certain areas just even in San Francisco,” Gautier said.
The idea behind the free service led Gautier to launch her non-profit organization Matter of Trust that focuses on reusing discarded materials in addition to using natural materials in abundance to promote sustainability. Last month she took Matter of Trust out of her home and into the Mission District to open an Eco-Center at 3338 17th Street near Valencia Street that doubles as its headquarters.
Gautier’s philosophy is about repurposing man made things rather than tossing them out.
“I would like people to not think that there is waste. There are just unsorted resources. There’s just stuff we don’t know what to do with yet,” she said.
Often times the most unlikely things that are in abundance can turn out to be the most resourceful.
During the 2010 BP spill that left 210 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, Matter of Trust used hundreds of thousands of hair booms to help in the clean up efforts. The booms, which are about the size of wooden logs, were fashioned from stockings stuffed with natural hair. They proved to be a great way to extract the oil from the water as hair naturally soaked up the chemical the same way it collects oil on people’s heads.
Gautier said the natural hair booms were more effective than the oil-based ones BP used in the clean up. One pound of hair can soak up a quart of oil in one minute, she said.
Nevertheless, BP declined to use the booms provided by Matter of Trust in its cleanup efforts and only a portion of the booms were actually deployed by volunteers.
Gautier began Matter of Trust in 1998 and worked out of her home for several years. However, running the non-profit that way made the organization somewhat detached, she said.
The center welcomes members of the community to learn about sustainability through its various programs and exhibits that are on display.
The center partners with 10 local schools to provide summer and after-school programs. This summer the Eco-Center became the fiscal sponsor for the Leadership Ecology Action and Fellowship Academy that teaches children about the environment through fieldwork while visiting local ecological centers like the Marine Mammal Center and Recology.
The Music Matters program has children building instruments from recycled items like metal tins to make guitars or even a French horn created from seaweed kelp.
“The students look at the items and put it together to see it in a totally different way and with a new life,” said Matter of Trust Project Manager Lorna Porter. “It’s not just music but waste in general that they are seeing through a new lens.”
The center also rents out its space for eco-friendly baby showers and birthday parties that invite guests to enjoy their festive celebrations and participate in eco-themed activities.
In addition, Gautier opened an eco-friendly shop with several handmade items such as glass bird feeders from Mexico and alpaca baby clothes from Peru.
Items from local San Francisco artisans, some of which are made right in the Mission District like Etta and Billie bars of soap made by small business owner Alana Rivera, are also available in the store.
“It’s part of our philosophy to encourage people to use things in their neighborhood. It reduces your carbon footprint and helps support the economy in your area,” said Rudy De Leon, a marketing consultant for the Eco-Center’s shop.
Although environmentally friendly items cost more to produce, De Leon said his goal is to keep prices at $20 or less.
“It’s a challenge to keep things affordable of course because some of these things are handmade. When things are handmade you don’t have that factory mentality,” De Leon said.
In the spirit of harnessing available resources, the center’s weekly Expert’s Workbench program hosts local trade smiths that teach community members looking to learn new skills.
Gautier said the vocational vibrancy of the Mission District that involves making and building exemplifies the concept sustainability, which is one reason she chose to bring the Eco-Center to the neighborhood.
“It doesn’t matter what you are, but if you’re an expert at it that’s what kind of interesting. The Mission District has a lot of that — it has an energy that a lot of the other districts don’t have,” Gautier said.