Clear Roads, Clean Environment

Taryn Beverly

Salt would seem to be a relatively inexpensive product, but the reality is, after record snowfall swept through the United States last winter, the cost of road salt has skyrocketed. That’s a big problem for New England States this winter, as they work to keep up with another year of record-setting snowfall (some spots saw nearly three feet from Juno alone). With salt prices soaring – and the high environmental costs of road salt well documented – there’s no better time for communities to explore salt-free alternatives for de-icing our roadways.

Road Salt by the Numbers

© Missoulian.com

Using salt to clear icy roads is costly – to state budgets and the environment. But innovative alternatives are starting to emerge. © Missoulian.com

Across the U.S., more than 22 million tons of road salt are used every year. With last year’s unanticipated and record-breaking snowfall, the state of Massachusetts alone spread 585,000 tons of road salt and spent a total of $118 million on ice and snow removal. The harsh winter across the country caused a shortage in road salt supplies – and the subsequent increase in its cost – which transportation departments are still trying to overcome.

In Massachusetts, the Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is paying 36% more for salt this year than last year (about $70 per ton compared to $50 twelve months ago). In addition, prices for Vermont and Connecticut increased by 40% and 30%, respectively. Despite this, these New England states are more fortunate than some other parts of the country. In Illinois, counties last year paid an average of $55 per ton; this year’s prices average $102 per ton, an 85% increase. And in Ohio, counties saw an average 86% cost increase from last year.

A shift away from road salt is a good idea not only because of its increasingly high price tag, however. The use of road salt damages roads, vehicles, and our environment. More often than not, salt washes into streams and rivers, killing plant and animal life alike, or it percolates through the soil into our drinking water supplies.

Many municipalities and states have implemented innovative techniques to clear ice and snow without the extravagant costs, and, luckily, many of these methods are also safer for the environment.

New Methods for De-Icing

Massachusetts has a reduced salt policy, and currently pre-treats its roads with brine when possible to decrease the use of road salt. Brine is a 23% salt solution that reduces the amount of salt spread on roads by 15% to 30%. The solution also reduces the amount of chloride released into the atmosphere by 14% to 29%.

Wisconsin is trying a new method for melting ice: cheese brine. It is a cheap source for Wisconsin because the state uses leftover byproduct from producing cheese. The only real cost of cheese brine is transporting it. While cheese brine does not completely replace salt, its use does lower the amount of salt needed by 30%. Cheese brine might not be a logical option for a place like Massachusetts, but maybe Vermont could consider researching the environmental effects of this approach.

States around the country have also begun to use some interesting materials, such as molasses, ashes, and juices from beets, potatoes, and pickles. Since these natural juices aren’t limited by geography, considering a local product like cranberry juice might be an idea in Massachusetts – or what about ocean salt water in Maine and Rhode Island?

Another possible deicer to consider is volcanic rock, a natural material that becomes embedded in snow and ice to create traction, acting like sand paper. It’s a plus for the environment in that it does not pollute water or harm animals and can be absorbed by the soil. In addition, it might take less volcanic rock to get the same deicing results as for salt and sand, cutting the overall cost of its use.

Perhaps the most innovative proposal suggested by some engineers is solar-powered roads, the first successful implementation being completed in the Netherlands this past November. Although this couldn’t be implemented fully in the U.S. for some time, this new method could hold promise for the future. Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, along with engineers from Solar Roadways, are studying the use of these new roadways. Solar-powered roads clear themselves by storing power from the sun. The energy is stored in pipes below the road; the hot liquid warms the road, melting the accumulating ice and snow. A drawback of this new alternative is that installation of the underground pipes can be very costly. However, once the process is completed the long-term benefits to the environment and savings on operating and maintenance costs would be enormous.

Increased Demand Calls for Innovative Solutions

Record snowfalls (and record demand for road salt) are becoming the new normal. According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, research centers that track climate change have documented that certain parts of the U.S. have experienced a 71% increase in rain or snow due to global warming. So the need for cost-effective deicing methods is only going to increase.

Many states are looking into innovative ways to clear ice and snow to save costs and protect the environment. While many of these new techniques still require the use of salt they do reduce the amount needed – sometimes dramatically – which is a step in the right direction. With implementation of some of the newly tested techniques, transportation departments could eventually eliminate the use of road salt all together. New England states and municipalities should aim to get ahead of this trend.

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