A Canadian company may have stumbled upon an environmentally friendly way of cleaning up oil spills. Protec-style, which manufactures protective cases, is growing the world’s first and only industrial crop of milkweed. The plant, loved by monarch butterflies but long lamented by farmers as a nuisance, has unique properties that make it extremely useful in cleaning up spills. Fibers in the seed pods are naturally water repellant, which makes them perfect for cleaning up oil spills at sea or on land. The fibers also have the capacity to absorb four times the amount of oil that the conventional substance, polypropylene, does. François Simard, owner of Protec-style, has set up a co-op of 20 farmers to grow 325 hectacres of milkweed on Quebec farmland, and another 35 growers are on a waiting list.
After the milkweed fiber is harvested, the fibers are stuck into specially designed “socks” that come in various sizes and can be used on land or in water. "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 material, therefore there is less of a cost of disposal," Simard said in a recent article by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Currently, Simard has a contract with the Canadian Parks Agency to supply the national parks with kits containing the milkweed socks. The kits will be placed at strategic points in the parks such as warden filling stations and other places where petroleum products are used.
Not only is milkweed a more efficient, environmentally conscious way of cleaning up petroleum spills, its greatest benefit is helping the dwindling monarch butterfly population.An invasive species that's toxic to cattle, milkweed is considered an agricultural pest and has been vigorously eliminated from much of rural America, despite the fact that it's the only food source for the threatened monarch. The decline in milkweed and the decline in monarch populations are inextricably linked says Scientific American (SA). Use of herbicides in industrial agriculture has greatly diminished the population of what used to be an abundant plant. SA also reports that monarch populations have dropped more than 95 percent in the last 10 years. This industrial batch of milkweed has been serving as a kind of mega way-station for the monarchs while they make the 1,800 mile trip from Canada to Mexico.
"The more milkweed we grow, the more monarchs we're going to see," Simard said. “There were so many butterflies in the field that people on the road … had to stop. They were wondering what was happening. Just growing 20 hectares that made the whole difference.”
The milkweed socks are expected to be in use this winter.
Photo by Fotolia/Terry Reimink