Milkweed touted as oil-spill super-sucker — with butterfly benefits

A Quebec company is taking a unique approach to cleaning up oil spills by producing the world's only industrial crop of milkweed that will be used as new kind of absorbent. And there's a bonus: growing more milkweed also helps conserve the habitat-stressed monarch butterfly.

Low-cost fibre sought by Parks Canada and habitat-stressed monarchs

The white fibres often seen floating in the fall breeze are able to absorb four times more oil than polypropylene, the artificial product now used to clean up spills. (M. Spencer Green/Associated Press)

A Quebec company is taking a unique approach to cleaning up oil spills by producing the world's only industrial crop of milkweed, which will be used as new kind of absorbent. 

Franç​ois Simard, creator of Protec-Style, has a contract with Parks Canada to supply national parks with oil-spill kits. The kits come with various sizes of absorbent tubes filled with milkweed fibre.

Simard says milkweed has a unique ability to repel water, which makes it perfect for oil spills on land or water.

"You can leave an absorbent [milkweed] sock in water and it will only absorb the oil. It's very unique in nature to have fibres like that," said Simard in an interview at his factory in Granby, Que. 
Franç​ois Simard, creator of Protec-Style, holds one of his absorbent milkweed-fibre oil-spill cleanup kits. (Margo McDiarmid/CBC)

Milkweed has long been considered a rural pest. But Simard, a former chemical engineer, says the plant's unusual qualities caught his interest.

The white fibres that you can often see floating in the fall breeze are light and hollow and able to absorb four times more oil than polypropylene, the artificial product now used to clean up spills.

Simard has set up a co-operative of 20 farmers in Quebec to grow 325 hectares of milkweed. He says there are another 35 growers on a waiting list.

Low-cost spill cleanup

After the milkweed is harvested, the fibres are separated from pods and seeds and then stuffed into absorbent "socks" or tubes at Simard's factory.

Each kit can absorb 200 litres of spilled oil.

"It's less expensive to use milkweed to collect the oil that was spilled in nature because you have more capacity, you need less absorbent, therefore there is less of a cost of disposal," said Simard.
A comparison shows how much milkweed material, right, and polypropylene, centre, would be needed to fully absorb a spill of the diesel oil in the container on the left. (Margo McDiarmid/CBC)

Parks Canada is interested in the milkweed spill kits because they fit with its mandate for environmental stewardship, says Mikailou Sy, who is head of environmental management for Parks Canada. The contract is worth $186,651 and will supply 50 national parks

The kits will be set up near where park wardens fill up their vehicles and in work yards where petroleum products are used. Staff will be asked to use the milkweed first to assess how well it works.

"Each time there is a spill, however minor it is, our people will be instructed to use this product first and to see whether it is more effective than the product they used before," said Sy in an interview with CBC.

There is also an added environmental benefit.

Habitat for monarchs

Milkweed plants are the only place where the orange and black monarch butterfly lays its eggs. The monarchs, some of which migrate a gruelling 3,000 kilometres every year from Canada to Mexico, are in steep decline. It's partly because milkweed, which is both a habitat and food source for the monarch caterpillar, is being destroyed by pesticides.
A monarch butterfly that Franç​ois Simard has named Bob perches on his arm. Demand for Simard's oil-spill kits means more milkweed crops that are beneficial for the butterflies. (Margo McDiarmid/CBC)

There's a growing movement in North America to plant milkweed along the migration route to help the disappearing butterfly. Last year, the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the U.S. signed an agreement to make greater efforts to protect the butterfly.

Simard says that's why his crop has added environmental benefit.

"The more milkweed we grow, the more monarchs we're going to see."

Simard, says this year's small milkweed crop in Quebec's Mauricie region was an example of what could happen.

"There were so many butterflies in the field that people on the road … had to stop," he says. "They were wondering what was happening. It was just growing 20 hectares that made the whole difference."

Simard is also working on plans to produce and test milkweed fibres for cold weather insulation with winter clothing manufacturer Chlorophylle.

But in the meantime, his small factory is busy filling up the milkweed oil spill kits that will be sent out to national parks this winter.

"It's very useful, and Mother Nature will thank us for it."