Environmentally Friendly Alternatives To Winter Salt
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?
Each winter, millions pounds of salt are dumped on Wisconsin's roadways — plus more on parking
lots, driveways and sidewalks.
The chloride in road salt corrodes vehicles and bridges and can be harmful to pets. According to
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 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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.