Environmentally-friendly alternatives to rock salt on roadways

Posted in: Bridges, Highways


Cold weather brings plenty of snow and ice, which is a problem for drivers. Using rock salt to melt icy roads is a decades-old practice. Most local governments combat icy road conditions by spreading rock salt across the asphalt to de-ice the frozen roads. While this is an effective short-term solution, recent studies show that rock salt harms the man-made and natural environments.

An estimated 22 million tons of salt is scattered on roads annually. While rock salt is not the root cause of potholes, this cycle can exaggerate their formation. Rock salt encourages damaged pavement to retain thawed water, further weakening the pavement and causing potholes to form more quickly. Additionally, concrete structures like bridges, overpasses and sidewalks are especially susceptible to corrosion.

In addition to roadway structures, rock salt is damaging to the environment. Salt breaks down and finds its way into streams and rivers. The chemicals in rock salt lower the survival rates of aquatic species. The chemicals can also permanently mutate native plants and trees that grow near roads.

Local governments are taking notice, though. Many are looking into ways to reduce the amount of chemicals introduced onto the roadways and into the ecosystem. Here are some of the safer, yet rather unconventional alternatives they have found:

  • Smart Salting: Salting roads before it snows allows road crews to use less salt. Cities have greatly reduced the amount of salt used by educating road maintenance crews about the damaging effects of salt and how to spray more effectively.
  • Cheese Brine: In Polk County, Wisconsin, officials teamed up with local dairy operations to use cheese brine to spray on the roads before snows. Cheese brine is a by-product of cheese, which is waste product that has no resale value.
  • Beet Molasses: This biodegradable byproduct is created when sugar beets are made into commercial-grade sugar. This alternative de-icer is already used by 200 agencies and in eight states.

Changing de-icing methods does have associated capital costs. It requires new storage facilities and distribution methods as well as public buy-in. However, the methods have their benefits. A mix of salt and cheese brine has a lower freezing point, helps salt stick to the road and speeds up the melting process. The beet molasses mixture acts much the same way, creating a sticky mixture that “glues” in place and melts ice with only one spray coat.

By supplementing traditional salt with the methods above, we can reduce the amount of damage to our roads and the environment. Have your communities tried any of the methods above? Do you have any other suggested alternatives to try…like sand or maybe pickle juice? Get creative and share your thoughts below.

Dustin WolffAbout the Author

When he works on development and preservation plans, Dustin Wolff keeps in mind that communities need to evolve. “Helping people shape their futures is a rewarding and humbling responsibility,” he says. “The built environment has a profound effect on our lives. Decisions we make today will be felt for years to come.” He also enjoys visiting cities around the U.S. to experience what makes them special.

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