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Road salt is harmful to the environment. What are some alternatives?

Road salt is harmful to the environment. What are some alternatives?

Michigan’s winter is here, and that means road salt.

It is terrible for the environment. What can we do to stop it?

Sunday Read is ClickOnDetroits Sunday news review to help readers catch up on some of the most important topics of the week.

Salty about road salt

I love salt as much a man can. My blood pressure doesn’t like salt. But in winter, sodium levels on roads are increasing rapidly, and this is also raising Mother Nature’s blood pressure.

When we get our first snow/ice event in Michigan the salt trucks are dispatched onto the freeways or side streets (depending where you live) and spray salt in every direction.

It is not new to use salt on winter roads. It was first used in the United States in 1938 as an experiment in New Hampshire. In the winter of 1941-1942New Hampshire started using salt on its roads and highways in 1996. 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. The salt deposits that lie below Detroit and throughout Michigan are formed approximately 400 million years ago. The salt mines under Detroit were discovered in 1895.

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

Detroit Salt. (Ken Haddad/WDIV)

It’s not an easy task to give up 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 information from the agency:


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

Rock salt is extremely effective at melting snow and other ice and is inexpensive. Rock salts are inexpensive, but they can cause damage to property, infrastructure, the environment, and other properties. Even though rock salt seems harmless, large amounts can cause corrosion to vehicles, trucks, bridges and roads. Annual repairs of $5 billionOnly in the U.S.

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 biggest obstacles to finding alternatives to salt road salt. To cover roads and freeways in any given state, you will need a lot of the same substance. Also, it is difficult to find alternatives to road salt that are significantly more expensive.

Magnesium chlorineide (MgCl), although considered safer than NaCl is twice as expensive and covers the same area. CaCl is more cost-effective than NaCL but is safer for the planet. It is therefore often used in sensitive areas. There are other ideas, however:

Porous pavement

A new engineering method is being tested in Northeast. It shows promise. Permeable, porous pavement allows water to seep in, removing water from roads. (You may have seen potholes.)


It’s an alternative to traditional pavers that include materials such as pervious asphalt, pervious concrete or interlocking paving 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 on right (EPA)

It can, in fact, reduce the need for road salt. A recent studyIt was found that porous pavement had a three-fold lower annual snow/ice cover than regular pavement. This led to a 77% decrease in the amount of salt required for maintenance. (More studies, info here).


Solar roads

A road Although it may sound strange, engineered solar panels could be the future.

The potential to convert every road into a source for renewable energy is possible with solar road technology. This technology could not only provide an additional energy source but also melt ice and snow using heat from pipes embedded in the road.

This technology could be a game changer for electric vehicles. Michigan is already preparing to test it on electrified roads.

Related: Whitmer: Michigan will build the nation’s first electrified road 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. Results were mixedYou can find case studies from all over the world.


See Also

Brine or juice the road

Don’t forget your Thanksgiving turkey! Instead, brine the roads. Since 2012, Rhode Island has been brining roads with a salt-water solution. This is also known as antiicing. It prevents frost formation on pavement.

Some are using pickle juice, beet and molasses as a way to slow down ice formation. The solution becomes sticky and prevents salty water from splashing onto roads and into the drinking 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 wildlife to the roadway. Like moose!)


What about sand?

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.

But, as the EPA notesAfter the snow or ice melts the remaining sand gets washed away, clogging catch basins or other waterbodies with sediment. This requires additional manpower and money in order to maintain the basins clean.

A more targeted approach?

One option is to limit salt consumption. We have the technology! New Hampshire’s road salt initiativeIt includes upgrading equipment so salt is spread only using closed loop systems. This allows operators to accurately release and monitor salt application, lower speed limits during snow/ice events and mandatory use of snow tires in winter.


Bottom line

This question does not have a single answer. It’ll likely be a mix of solutions. It is clear that road salt cannot be used forever. The longer we wait, the more damage we do to the environment.

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

Similar read: 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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