Eco-Friendly Alternatives To Salt

Salt Truck spreading sald on icy road

There's no doubt about it — winter is coming along with freezing temperatures, snow storms and icy driveways and sidewalks. Dealing with icy conditions is a common concern during the winter months and de-icing with salt, although cheap and effective, has serious environmental consequences.

As awareness of road salt's impacts on lakes and rivers grows, public works agencies and homeowners alike are on the lookout for safer alternatives. Pickle juice, cheese brine, chicken grit and coffee grounds are some the alternatives that are being considered, but do any of them work? And, are they really better for the environment?

The Issues With Salt

Each winter, millions pounds of salt are dumped on Wisconsin's roadways — plus more on parking lots, driveways and sidewalks.

Snow and ice covered stairs

Corrosion of Metals

The chloride in road salt corrodes vehicles and bridges and can be harmful to pets. According to a widely cited estimate from Ali Akbar Sohanghpurwala, an expert in the field of corrosion of metals in concrete, one ton of road salt does about $1,500 worth of corrosion damage to bridges, vehicles and environment. And keep in mind we use tons of salt each year just in the metro areas alone.

Stone, Masonry and Concrete

Stone, masonry, and concrete that are less than a year old are known to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of the freeze and thaw cycle. So while concrete driveways garage floors and sidewalks may appear very solid, concrete is essentially a porous material that absorbs water. If rock salt or other chemical ice melters are applied, the water and salt mixture is absorbed by the concrete, once the ice or snow melts.

Pets

Caring for pets paws during the winter is crucial to decrease the chance of getting chemical burns on their paws. Prolonged contact can lead to chemical burns on dog paws. If your dog is limping by end of a walk, de-icing products may be hurting his feet.

Plants

Plants can also be damaged when their foliage and roots are exposed to water with high salt content. The water and salt mixture, when it percolates through the soil profile can affect the plant roots, soil particles and soil microbes. In particular, it causes water stress, which can result in depressed yield and growth. It can affect the soil quality by displacing phosphorus and potassium, which results in the reduction of aeration, drainage and increases soil compaction and density.

Groudwater, Lakes and Rivers

Salt doesn't even work properly once temperatures dip below 15 degrees. It also causes major environmental damage when it washes into groundwater, lakes and rivers, where it's toxic to fish and other aquatic life.

Impossible to Remove Chloride

Compounding the problem, chloride is a permanent pollutant. Once snow melts and salt is in a body of water, it's nearly impossible to remove. In fact, the only feasible way to clean up salt-contaminated water is through reverse osmosis, which remains too expensive to implement on a large scale.

What About My Sidewalk?

Many homeowners are looking for their own environmentally-safer solutions for icy sidewalks and driveways. There are a lot of products out there that are advertised as safe or eco-friendly, but there are no regulated labeling requirements for de-icing products, so it's hard to know for sure if that's true.

If somebody wants to say that their salt product they're selling is environmentally friendly, there are no laws in place making them prove or show that, in fact, it has a benefit to the environment.

When you're looking at labels, products without sodium might be better for your lawn. But if they contain chloride, they're still harmful for lakes and streams. It's a chemical, and it's going to have an impact on the environment,

Read the ingredients, not the claims.

As is the case with food and beauty products, the ice-melt industry has cottoned on to the fact that people want green. Which means eco-claims abound. Read ingredient lists. If there’s no ingredient list on the package, don’t buy the stuff. And avoid sodium chloride; that common concoction is the worst of all the salts (and also, of course, the cheapest).

“Pet-friendly” means eco-friendly.

Some brands may be more focused on safety to dogs, cats, and horses than safety to the landscape or water supply, but it’s a pretty good bet that if they advertise as pet-friendly, they’re better for your plants, your kids, and you.

Sometimes traction is enough.

Do you really need to melt the ice, or can you just make it walkable? Everyday products like sand, sawdust, kitty litter (non-clumping), and ashes are proven ways to add traction to a slippery surface. They’re better for you, comparatively better for your immediate environment, and often cheaper too.

Home Remedies

Woman slipping on icy sidewalk

DIY De-Icer

  Then you’ll have to tune your ear to this recipe because you probably have most of the ingredients on hand. You’ll place a half-gallon of water into a spray container.
  Next, you’ll add a few drops of dish liquid, such as Dawn into the mix. Finish the process with adding a capful or two of rubbing alcohol into the mixture. Stir the mixture up.
  Then you’ll spray the mixture onto the icy area and watch the ice melt. Hopefully, this will make getting outside on icy days a little easier.

Baking Soda

  if you live in a deeply frozen area, this will probably not be the solution for you. Though baking soda works well with thin layers of ice in mildly cold temperatures, it doesn’t have a high enough salt content to work on the really thick stuff.
  So if you are in a pinch when you wake up in an area that doesn’t normally get ice, but you find a small amount on your windshield, then you might want to sprinkle a little baking soda on it to see if it makes the ice melt a little faster.

Other Ideas

Some people swear by their own home remedies, like chicken grit — a material made mainly of crushed stone fed to birds to help their digestion — coffee grounds or kitty litter. While each of those alternatives might provide a little traction on slippery surfaces, they won't melt the ice.

Sand

For those really slippery spots where traction is needed, a good strategy might be to sprinkle a little sand. But be sure to sweep it up later, she said, before it gets washed away and clogs up the storm sewer or causes sediment problems in lakes and streams.

Accept Winter — The Best Solution

Putting on snow cleets

The best solution is to adjust to the reality of winter in Wisconsin. After a storm, plan ahead for difficult driving conditions and don't expect roads to be free to snow and ice.

At home, get out that shovel and broom. Clear as much snow and ice from your sidewalks and driveways as possible before you reach for a de-icing product. If you really need salt or sand, use it sparingly and only on patches that you know are icy. Consider buying cleats that you can put over your shoes or boots to avoid slips and falls.