As the earth tilts away from the sun, the first snowfall always blankets the landscape in its uniquely lovely way. Not long after, the bright white terrain will become a brownish, soupy, slushy slop, making it difficult to get to and fro, especially if there’s a flash freeze.
The most common way to deal with snow and ice is to scatter handfuls of rock salt – or sodium chloride – along driveways and walkways during the winter months. It’s cheap, it’s plentiful, and it melts ice rather quickly. But as you will see, there are a great many reasons to stop this practice…
The Problem Of Rock Salt Pollution:
One and the same as table salt (just less processed), sodium chloride as road salt works by lowering the freezing point of water, but becomes ineffective when temperatures dip below 20°F.
In the short-term, the use of rock salt keeps roads and cities up and running after a blizzard (even a single day of impassable roads carries heavy economic costs) and has been shown to reduce vehicular accidents by as much as 87%. But in the long view, its widespread use has a dreadful environmental impact. Each year, around 22 million tons of rock salt is dumped on roads and sidewalks in the U.S. and all that salt has to go somewhere.
Fresh water becomes salt water
After it is spread on the roads, rock salt eventually dissolves and splits up into chloride and sodium ions. Carried to streams, lakes, and rivers, via surface runoff while also seeping into the earth’s groundwater supply, it increases the salinity of fresh water sources and accumulates steadily over time. Every spring, after a big thaw, the concentration of salt in fresh water spikes to around one third of the salt levels found in the ocean. If nothing changes about how we use road salt, within the next century many freshwater sources in the northeastern United States would no longer be safe for human consumption.
Destructive to wildlife
Raised salt levels in fresh water impacts the survival, growth, and reproduction of the myriad organisms that reside there, from insects and crustaceans to fish and aquatic plants. A study on pond-breeding amphibians (specifically salamanders and frogs) found that road salt travels as far as 172 meters from the highways and into the wetlands, reducing the number of eggs laid and the survival rates at the egg and larval stage. Proximity to salt concentrations caused deformities in newt hatchlings, the frequency and severity of which increased the closer they were to salt pollution. Terrestrially, road salt kills off trees and plants and birds, and has the potential to disrupt fragile ecosystems and fracture intricate food webs.
When salt accumulates in the soil, it interferes with a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients. Sodium reduces the uptake of water, potassium, calcium, and magnesium – all vital elements for plant growth. Brown patches on the lawn and stunted plants in the garden are telltale signs of salty soil.
Sodium chloride is extremely corrosive. It will rust your car, damage reinforced concrete structures like bridges, and accelerate shifting and cracking in paved surfaces. It will also leave an indelible mark on boots, pants, and jackets. Though rock salt is cheap, these are some of the hidden costs of its use.
Toxic to pets
Rock salt is also an irritant. Cats and dogs are often subjected to painful burning, inflammation, and cracked pads after walking on treated surfaces. If not washed off right away, pets can ingest it by licking their paws. Symptoms of exposure to road salt include salivation, diarrhea, vomiting, depression, anorexia, disorientation, vocalizing, excessive thirst, and apprehension. Worse still, if consumed in large quantities it can lead to sodium ion toxicosis which can result in death.
Green Alternatives To Road Salt:
Local governments take up the lion’s share of road salt use, but the good news is that many municipalities across the country are seeking out more earth-friendly solutions to the sodium chloride problem. From pre-treating roads before a looming storm (and thereby using less road salt overall), to mixing rock salt with water to prevent salt crystals from bouncing off the roads, as well as combining it with sand, vegetable brines, and less harmful compounds – all of these tactics help lessen our reliance on rock salt.
The ultimate dream would be to stop using road salt altogether with smart snow plows that measure temperature and salt levels on the street, and solar roads which would prevent ice and snow from accumulating in the first place.
In the meantime, individuals and business owners can combat icy sidewalks, driveways, and walking paths by choosing greener alternatives:
1. Wood ash
A gratis product from the fireplace, wood ash contains potash – or potassium salts – which will help de-ice and melt snow, and provide a bit of traction, in moderate conditions. Since ash is darker in color, it will absorb the heat of the sun. Though it won’t work as quickly as rock salt, potash is a much gentler salt that won’t harm your plants, animals, or paved surfaces.
2. Alfalfa meal
Most commonly used as an organic fertilizer, alfalfa meal also happens to be a very effective snow and ice melter. Its grainy texture will also provide some traction. Containing mild amounts of nitrogen – which is the reason it’s a good de-icer – alfalfa meal is much milder than other high nitrogen fertilizers (such as urea). Because it is longer lasting than sodium chloride, you need only use it sparingly on snowy surfaces while doing your part to avoid algae bloom in our waterways.
3. Leftover coffee grounds
The nitrogen and acids in coffee grounds can help melt ice and snow. After a fresh shovelling, scatter it along sidewalks and paths to add extra grip too. The dark color also means you’ll get the melting effects of solar radiation.
4. Cover it up
Place plastic tarps on high-traffic surfaces (such as door entries, pathways, and the distance between your car and your home) just before the storm rolls in. Depending on the amount of snowfall, shovel it off or shake out the tarp before it gets the chance to freeze up.
5. Sugar beet juice
Many municipalities are mixing sugar beet juice with rock salt to enhance the ice melting effects of sodium chloride, but sugar beet juice can be used all on its own for small-scale applications around the home. Effective to a temperature of minus 13°F, the sugars present in beet juice lower the freezing point of water so it can be applied to surfaces ahead of a blizzard to prevent snow and ice from accumulating.
6. Homemade ice melter
Here’s a DIY recipe that works really well:
2 quarts of warm water + 6 drops of dish soap + 2 ounces of rubbing alcohol
Transfer this solution to a spray bottle. The ice should break up right away and make shovelling so much easier.
7. Add grit
Unless the icy build-up is a real hazard, in most cases just adding grit to snowy surfaces will provide the traction you need to safely get from point A to point B. Try laying down some sand, gravel, or birdseed to make walkways more grippy. Avoid using clay based kitty litters though, since it will turn into watery sludge once it comes in contact with moisture and make the ground even more slippery than it was before.
Made from volcanic rock, EcoTraction is an all-natural product that adheres to ice and snow, creating an instantaneous gripping effect that will work in any temperature. Though it wasn’t meant to be an ice melt per se, the dark green granules will heat up under the sun to boost thawing. Entirely safe for children and pets, EcoTraction will actually add nutrients to your lawn and garden and won’t damage stone and concrete. A little goes a long way (one cup’s worth should cover the average parking space), and it can be swept up and reused the following year.
9. Safe Paw
Safe Paw is geared toward the pet owner but certainly everyone can enjoy the non-toxic benefits. The little blue pellets are made with a proprietary amide/glycol mixture, which is safe for people, pets, plants, surfaces, and the environment, while also providing the dual function of melting and traction. It works in temperatures as low as minus 2°F and has a timed release formula that can help prevent ice for up to 3 days.
10. Good old fashioned shovelling
It might be the last thing you want to do, but simply shovelling away the snow after a squall will prevent the need for extra ice melting treatments. Make it easy on yourself this year by spraying the shovel blade with cooking oil. This will stop snow and ice from sticking while you work and make your time outside go by so much faster.