When cold weather arrives each year, an estimated 20 million tons of sodium chloride, or salt, is scattered on U.S. roads. When all this salt melts, it runs directly into our soil, groundwater and nearby freshwater streams and rivers, persisting in the ecosystem year after year, increasing the salination levels with every storm’s application.
For native plants, birds and wildlife that live in or near these streams, it is like drinking a big glass of ocean water when you’re thirsty. All this salt runoff also depletes oxygen in local waterways, inhibiting a fish’s ability to breathe in the water and encouraging algae blooms. Nearly 40 percent of urban streams in the U.S. already have chloride levels that exceed the safe guidelines for aquatic life.
But too much sodium chloride is also a problem for us. Road salt is a corrosive material. So, as all this salt crystalizes on our cars and trucks, melts across our driveways, roads and sidewalks and then trickles down our pipes and sewers, it damages this infrastructure along the way, resulting in potential hazards and costly fixes — up to approximately $5 billion dollars in annual repairs in the U.S. alone.
This winter, think sustainably and make a change by considering some alternatives to salt.
Shovel Often, Shovel Right
One of the simplest methods to avoid using salt is to simply shovel. When shoveling, start from the center of the area and work your way outward; don’t push the snow toward one end or you’ll add more weight. Keep the shovel close to your body and only scoop small, light amounts to avoid unnecessary pain or sprains. Shovel frequently during a storm, perhaps every hour or so, to keep the weight and volume down, which encourages snowfall to quickly melt on its own. And be sure to stretch before and after each session!
Brush Off That Snow!
On top of your car roof, upon the branches of your overhanging trees and bushes and up on the gutters — snow can build up quickly. Be sure to swipe these areas clean and dust off those tree and shrub branches near any walkways or roads before shoveling the snow off into a safer area, like the lawn, to melt. When the temperatures change throughout the day and night, these snow drifts and bundles, while quite picturesque, will thaw, melt and freeze again, creating pockets of reoccurring hidden ice below. Save yourself some time, effort and reapplications of salt by simply removing any snow from nearby surfaces and plants before shoveling to prevent ice from forming in the first place.
Use Your Voice!
We can all do our part to reduce salt this winter. A good proportion of road salt that infiltrates into our waterways comes from municipal and state trucks that cover major roadways. Research has shown that this usage of salt has unnecessarily tripled in the last few years, making even greater negative impacts to both our infrastructure and waterways. Salty roads also attract animals like deer, who lick it up, increasing the probability of car accidents and injured animals during winter months. You can contact your representatives and ask them to support salt reduction and smart application, consider alternatives like brine or beet juice, recalibrate their plow trucks to reduce excess applications and install the newest forms of scrapes and plows to increase efficiency. You can also write to your politicians and let them know that safe, clean water is a priority for everyone.
Lay Down Some Traction
Another way to reduce icy slips and falls in the winter without using salt is to create traction. Lay down wood chips, straw, cat litter or sand — sparingly, as these products will also run off into the waterways — on the steps, driveway and sidewalks of your property. Although these won’t melt the snow or ice, they will provide much-needed friction. If you feel some salt is necessary, cut down the overall amount by mixing it with these materials. Also consider laying rubber mats on the steps before a storm arrives but be sure to bring them in when everything is dry again to prevent lengthened exposure to the elements. Rubber spikes, cleats or crampons can also be a handy tool during the winter. Add them to your boots or shoes to reduce slips and let the ice around you melt in time.
Moderation is Key
Sometimes, you may need to make a decision about ice management based on the safety of those in your neighborhood. If that is the case, remember to apply in moderation. A very little bit will certainly go a long way. You don’t need to feel a crunch underfoot to prevent ice. More salt won’t melt the snow any faster or better. Sprinkle sparingly and only when you’re positive that ice and snow are certain to arrive.