Snowy, slushy, or icy pavement presents significant dangers to motorists, accounting for 24% of weather-related vehicle crashes. However, clearing the roads with salt comes with costs to the environment.
As local governments plumb sustainability data and look for new methods to protect the environment, many are now finding success with less harmful alternatives to road salt. This opens not only a new sector for investment but also one more way to make a positive impact on ecosystems while keeping people safe on the roads.
The Environmental Impact of Road Salt
The United States applies more than 20 million metric tons of sodium chloride to the roads each year. Once the ice melts, that salt can wash into nearby water bodies as runoff along with toxic residue from farm fertilizers. This contaminates the water, the wildlife in and around it, and the humans that consume it. It also threatens the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 6, which centers on clean water and sanitation.
The concentration of salt in streams, rivers, and lakes is only worsening. Some urban streams near city centers have salt thresholds more than 30 times greater than the safe level recommended by the EPA, according to a 2021 study published by the Ecological Society of America.
The corrosive road salts also damage cars—and anything else made of metal, including infrastructure. The overuse of road salts may have exacerbated the Flint water crisis, corroding lead pipes enough to leak the metal into the water supply.
The Growth of Sustainable Alternatives
Several other chemical compounds have the ability to clear ice off of roads with less impact, including calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, and calcium magnesium acetate. Not only are they less corrosive to metal, but they require fewer applications, reducing the volume of contaminants in the following runoff.
Yet these alternatives may still release harmful chemicals into the environment, which is why companies are working to create greener possibilities based on natural compounds.
- Beet juice. A mixture of sugar beet juice, water, and salt can be an effective and environmentally friendly deicer. The solution uses much less salt, is not metal corrosive, and sticks to roads rather than washing away, making it less likely to spread into freshwater sources. Many municipalities including Washington, DC, and Winnipeg use this with success.
- Brines. Cheese brine, a waste product from making brinded cheeses, prevents ice from forming at temperatures as low as -23 Fahrenheit. Pickle brine can also clear salt and snow.
- Grape skin compounds. Researchers at Washington State University found a mixture of extracts from wasted grape skins that can melt ice more effectively than road salts.
Companies Offer Safer Solutions
As demand grows for more sustainable alternatives to road salt, impact investors seeking portfolio sustainability may look to the companies producing them.
- SNI Solutions. This company produces several organic and environmentally friendly deicing products including GEOMELT 55, a beet-based juice solution used by Washington, DC, and Maryland instead of rock salt.
- K-Tech Specialty Coatings. This business developed Beet Heet, a product made from beet molasses that mixes with salt to enhance its performance. As a result, less salt is needed for the roads.
- Envirotech Services. In addition to regular road salts, Envirotech produces green alternatives such as Apogee, a non-acetate-based natural solution (mixture is proprietary).
- F&A Dairy. This company partnered with Polk County in Wisconsin to keep roads clear of ice using cheese brine. In 2018, F&A Dairy was acquired by Saputo.
More of such companies can be found in the EPA Safer Choice Database, which contains deicers that meet higher environmental standards. These include CP Industries, Compass Minerals, and EcoChem.
Keeping drivers safe on the roads does not have to entail a harsh environmental impact on local ecosystems. Better sustainability data and a growing range of sustainable deicers demonstrate how municipalities can reach both goals—making it easier for investors to achieve impact.