Canadian Company Cleans Oil Spills With a Common Garden Weed

Milkweed Flowers

By Arman Kazemi

January 8, 2015

Milkweed fibre is as light as air, half the width of human hair and could help clean the next major oil spill.

Pods attached to milkweed fibres are hollow and the seeds naturally water repellent, allowing the fibres to pollinate across long distances while staying light and dry. But, it turns out that the fibres are also great at absorbing oil, more than four times the amount of artificially produced polypropylene.

A company from Granby, Quebec – a region where the plant happens to be indigenous – is now manufacturing oil-spill kits made out of nature’s unlikely sorbent.

Encore3, the Canadian company behind the venture, hopes its kits will be adopted by both private and public sector organizations to treat future oil spills, eventually replacing the less ecological, and less efficient, polypropylenes.

Indeed, the government of Canada is an early adopter, signing on to take the milkweed pouches for a test run.

Parks Canada has contracted Encore3 to supply parks throughout the country with kits wherever petroleum products are used, both on land and water. According to a CBC report, staff are instructed to apply the kits first wherever oil is spilled in order to assess their efficiency against more conventional absorbents.

With each kit able to soak up 200 litres of spilled oil at a rate of 0.23 litres per minute on water, the company’sown trials show it be twice as fast as standard cleaners.

Founder François Simard has also partnered with Agriculture Canada and Quebec’s Ministry of Agriculture to create the world’s only industrial milkweed crop in order to source the raw materials: a co-operative of 20 Quebec farmers accounting for 325 hectares of farmland situated in the plant’s natural habitat, with another 35 farmers on a waiting list.

The news couldn’t come early enough for one unlikely beneficiary of increased milkweed production. The monarch butterfly relies on milkweed as its sole breeding ground and the principal food source for its caterpillars.

But the population of butterflies that migrate the 4,800 kilometres from southern Canada to Mexico every winter is in sharp decline, partially as a result of pesticide use, urban development, and the human inclination to eradicate weeds of all types.

This has resulted in the destruction of 44 per cent of the monarch’s natural habitat, its placement on the World Wildlife Foundation’s 2010 list of most threatened species, and efforts from environmental organizations and the Canadian, U.S. and Mexican governments to protect the butterfly.

Simard’s efforts to clean the world’s oil spills could boosts another unlikely effort to save the planet, as was seen at even a relatively small 20-hectare milkweed farm in rural Quebec.

“There were so many butterflies in the field that people on the road… had to stop,” Simard told the CBC. “It was just 20 hectares and that made the whole difference.”

“It’s very useful,” Simard said of the technology, “and Mother Nature will thank us.”