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Road salt is bad for our environment. What are the alternatives?

Road salt is bad for our environment. What are the alternatives?

Michigan has experienced winter and lots of road salt. It’s bad for the environment. What can we do to stop it?

Salty about road salt

Salt is a favorite of mine as well as any other guy. My blood pressure is not a fan. However, the sodium levels on our roads in winter are rising rapidly and it is raising Mother Nature’s blood pressure.

Once we have our first snow or Ice event in Michigan, salt trucks are dispatched on to the freeways and side roads (depending on where your home is) to spray salt all over the roads.

Salt is not a new way to use winter roads. It was originally introduced in the USA in 1938 as an experiment in New Hampshire. The winter of 1941-1942New Hampshire began using salt to treat its roads and highways. Soon thereafter, salt was adopted by other states across the country and they began to treat their roads with salt.


Salt is one the most abundant natural resources in Michigan. Salt deposits beneath Detroit and most of Michigan formed around 400million years ago (ahh, seems like only yesterday), and salt mines were discovered in the Detroit area in 1895.

The Detroit Salt Mine was originally called the Detroit Salt and Manufacturing CompanyInaugurated in 1906. It has changed hands and technology several times over the years. Many people still remember the open tours of the mines. Open tours of the mines are no more, but salt mining is still alive and well.

Detroit Salt. (Ken Haddad/WDIV)

It is not easy to switch from salt. However, there are viable alternatives being tested in other areas. This could help our environment as well as wildlife.

Why road salt is so bad

Road salt can contaminate drinking waters, kill or endanger wildlife and increase soil erosion. It can also damage private and publicly owned property. According to the EPA.More from the agency:


Sodium Chloride (NaCl), also known as table salt, is the most commonly used substance for deicing roads.

Rock salt melts snow and ice very effectively and is relatively inexpensive. However, rock salt’s low cost does NOT include the potential for damage to property, infrastructure, and the environment. Even though rock salt seems harmless, large amounts can cause corrosion to vehicles, trucks, bridges and roads. $5 billion in annual repairsIn the U.S. alone.

Road salt can also infiltrate groundwater and surface water, and can contaminate wells and drinking water reservoirs. High sodium levels in water can lead to high blood pressure. Some fish, insects, and amphibians are sensitive to high levels of chlorine in surface waters.


Road salt also accumulates on roadsides and causes damage to wildlife. Salty roads can also attract animals like deer or moose who love to lick the salt, increasing the chances of accidents and roadkill.

Alternatives to road salt

Cost and volume are the two biggest problems in finding alternatives for road salt. To cover roads and freeways in any state, you need a lot of the substance. It is also difficult to get rid of the substance if there is a significant increase in cost.

Magnesium chlorineide (MgCl), although considered safer than NaCl is twice as expensive and covers the same area. CaCl (calcium chloride) is safer for the environment, but it is three times more costly than NaCL. This is why it is often reserved for use in areas that are most vulnerable. However, there are some other ideas emerging.

Porous pavement

A new engineering technique is being tested in the Northeast. It has some promise. Permeable or porous pavement allows water to seep through. This removes water from roads that normally go through freeze-thaw periods and prevents ice formation. This is what causes potholes. Maybe you’ve even seen them!


It is an alternative to traditional asphalt, pervious concrete and interlocking pavers. It allows rainwater and snowmelt to seep beneath the surface to the gravel and soil layers below. It can also be used to Function as a filter, preventing pollutants from entering water sources.

Traditional asphalt on left, porous asphalt at right (EPA)

It can, in fact, reduce the need for road salt. A recent studyThe study showed that the annual median snow/ice accumulation on porous pavement was threefolds lower than that on regular pavement. Additionally, the porous pavement’s low ice/snow content led to a 77% reduction of the annual salt needed for maintenance. (More information and studies available here


Solar roads

A road It may sound odd to make solar panels from engineered materials, but it could be the future.

Solar road technology could be used to transform every road into a source renewable energy. This technology could be used to melt ice or snow by heating water pipes embedded in roads.

This technology would revolutionize electric vehicles. Michigan is already testing it with electrified roads.

Related: Whitmer: Michigan’s first electrified highway for EVs

There are obvious issues here like the tilt of panels, shading, dirt, and debris issues, and the thickness of glass to withstand traffic. The results were mixedYou can find case studies from all over the world.


Brine or juice for the road

Don’t forget your Thanksgiving turkey! Instead, brine the roads. Since 2012, Rhode Island has used a brine solution for roads. It is basically salt-water. The brining, also known as anti-icing or salt-water road maintenance, prevents frost from forming on pavement. It is increasing in New England.

See Also

Some people are trying out things like pickle juice, beet juice, and molasses mixed with the salt. These help lower the freezing point of the water and slow down the formation of ice. The solution becomes sticky, which prevents salt from splashing onto the road and into the water system.

Though, This may not be a good idea for insects or other animals. It could cause havoc in the ecosystem if you dump a lot of beet pulp into a lake. It can also attract animals to the road. Like moose!)


What about sand, though?

Some municipalities have switched from salt-sand to a salt-sand mixture. While sand does not melt ice, it can increase traction in icy conditions.

However, the EPA points out thatAfter the snow melts, any remaining sand gets washed away, clogging catch basins with sediment. This requires additional manpower or money to keep the basins clean.

More targeted approach?

It is possible to target salt usage. We have the technology! New Hampshire’s road salt initiativeIt includes the upgrading of equipment so salt is spread using only closed loop system which allows operators to accurately release and monitor salt application.


Bottom line

This question has many answers. It will likely be a combination of several solutions. It’s clear that we cannot continue to use road salt forever. And the longer we wait to act, the more damage we do our environment.

You can also find eco-friendly salt for your house and walkways. Here’s a great list.

Similar articles: What is salt’s effectiveness and what are its limitations?

DENVER CO – MARCH 13. A snow plow leaves salt on the road next to Denver International Airport on Wednesday, March 13, 2021 in Denver. This weekend, more than 1800 flights from Denver to other destinations were cancelled due to a winter storm that is expected to bring up to four feet of snow to Colorado. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images(2021 Getty Images).

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