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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Canadian Company Uses Milkweed Fibers To Absorb Oil Spills, Help Monarchs

Monarch butterflies, like this one, are using the acres of milkweed flowers planted by Protec Style as breeding grounds. The company in Granby, Quebec, is using milkweed fibers for a variety of practical uses, including absorbing oil spills.

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.

Credit Francois Simard / Protec Style
Protec Style
Francois Simard, president of Protec Style, says that the fibers straight from the milkweed plant are effective in absorbing oil spills. "The trick is to remove the seed, remove the pod, and isolate the fiber," he explains.

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.

"By creating hundreds, even thousands of acres of milkweed, we're going to give a break to Monarchs when they come up north." - Francois Simard, president of Protec Style

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.  

Credit Francois Simard / Protec Style
Protec Style
Due to the size of their milkweed production, Protec Style has formed a cooperative of farmers in Quebec to help grow milkweed. They provide the hand-gathered seeds.

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.

Ric was a producer for Vermont Edition and host of the VPR Cafe.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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