Native to North America, milkweed grows wild and has been used in the past to remove warts, cure dysentery and suppress coughs. Native Americans also taught early settlers how to cook the native wildflower so it could be safely eaten. Milkweed is the breeding ground for Monarch butterflies, whose population has decreased in the past years due in some part to the reduction of milkweed plants growing wild.
Protec Style, a company in Granby, Quebec, has been developing a variety of practical uses for milkweed, one of which is naturally absorbing oil spills. Francois Simard, president of Protec Style, explains that the hollow fibers of milkweed, paired with its wax coating, allows it to attract and absorb oil very efficiently. “We currently use polypropylene [to absorb oil spills], which is a petroleum derivative fiber, and the fiber that we extract from milkweed can do five times a better job than polypropylene because it can absorb up to 50 liters per kilogram of fiber,” Simard says.
Starting in 2015, all of the parks in Canada will be using Protec Style’s natural milkweed fiber spill kits for any oil spills that occur. The kits are similar in most ways to current kits in the market, but use natural fibers instead of synthetic. “They are about the same size as other comparable spill kits, they are just much more efficient, much more ecological and they happen to help the monarch butterfly,” Simard explains.
The process for making the oil-absorbent material is fairly easy. “The natural fibers from the plant are effective themselves,” says Simard. “The trick is to remove the seed, remove the pod, and isolate the fiber.” Due to the size of their production, Protec Style hand gathers the milkweed seeds and re-plants for future crops. “We formed a cooperative of farmers to grow milkweed in Quebec and we provide the seeds. They make a large supply of milkweed fiber," says Simard. He sees the company expanding south of Quebec once the market increases, which he predicts will happen within the next few years.
Protec Style has found several other uses for milkweed fibers. The fiber provides a warm alternative to synthetic fibers or goose down for outdoor apparel. They have also seen the fiber have noise reduction properties, which they hope to eventually use as acoustic padding in cars, trucks and trains.
Although the company’s first priority is not to help the dwindling Monarch population, Simard is pleased with the positive environmental impact they are having. “By creating hundreds, even thousands of acres of milkweed, we’re going to give a break to Monarchs when they come up north. They’ll find lots of places to reproduce and they’ll be in the high numbers to go back south to Mexico, therefore giving them a greater chance of coming back year after year,” Simard says.
He’s already started to notice an increase in the Monarch population in his milkweed fields. “It’s good to know that the side effect of our product is helping to let Monarchs grow,” Simard says.