Where the Rind Hits the Road: Decreasing Food Waste by De-Icing with Cheese Brine

Elena Mihaly | @ElenaMihaly

recycling-food-waste

A brine bath adds flavor to cheese and helps salt stick to roadways in icy conditions. Photo credit: © Sint Smeding

What if eating mozzarella reduced your taxes? Yes, this is a bit of a stretch (pun intended), but not far from the wacky idea coming out of America’s Dairyland state. This winter, a Wisconsin county is repurposing cheese brine to keep city roads from freezing, mixing the dairy waste with traditional rock salt as a way to trim costs and reduce salt pollution.

When rock salt is combined with cheese brine – a liquid waste product from cheese making – it helps the salt stick to the roadway (rather than flowing into storm drains and waterways beyond) and speeds up melting. This combination presents a win-win-win situation: public works departments save on rock salt expenses, dairy operators save on hauling costs since brine must otherwise be shipped to local waste-treatment plants, and our watersheds absorb less salt. Polk County, the first in Wisconsin to innovate this food-waste solution, estimates it saved $40,000 in rock salt expenses in 2009, the first year it used brine on its highways. A wastewater manager at a dairy operation in northwestern Wisconsin said his company now donates most of the excess liquid to several municipalities willing to cart it away, saving the dairy about $30,000 a year on hauling costs.

And the streets don’t smell like a string-cheese factory, either. Residents in the Wisconsin town of Bay View say they have noticed little difference in the smell of their streets since the town started using cheese brine, and city officials have received no complaints.

While this innovative idea is a commendable solution for putting food waste to good use, questions remain about whether this cheese brine/rock salt combination is ultimately better for the environment than pure rock salt. Although the brine is strained before it’s spread on the roads to remove large organic matter, fine organic components are left behind and eventually end up in waterways. The impact of these organic compounds isn’t fully known. For instance, the breakdown of these compounds could disrupt local waterways by altering bacteria levels, and, as a result, lowering the amount of dissolved oxygen available for other organisms.

With Americans throwing away 40 percent of our food, and food waste the single largest component of solid waste in our landfills, now is the time to think broadly about innovative solutions to this problem, such as this alternative de-icing method. While the potential environmental consequences of spreading cheese brine on our roads may make us hesitate about its ecological soundness, we do think it’s a sharp idea worthy of more investigation. After all, living in a country where the average person eats ten pounds of mozzarella per year, we are compelled to be creative with all the cheese brine it took to make the stuff!

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