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Road salt is costly & harms our environment. Here’s what can you do about it.

road salt cleveland
A bulldozer piles up road salt at a storage yard outside of downtown Cleveland. Source: Gawker

It’s been another wicked winter here in Cleveland. January’s average temperature was just 23°F, according to the National Weather Service, making the month 5.1°F colder than normal. February has been brutally cold, and we have already seen 7 days with sub-zero temperatures this year. The continued cold snaps have largely been accompanied by clipper systems or lake-effect snow. Although the city actually received less snow than average in December and January, the total snowfall since November 1 has now reached 54.6″.

Northeast Ohio’s winter has paled in comparison to New England, where a succession of record storms has brought parts of the region to a standstill. Boston has endured 90.2″ of snow in the past 30 days, breaking its all time 30-day snowfall record, which was set back in 1978.

The unusually active start to February has left many municipalities reeling, leading to a spate of school closings and parking bans. The City of Cleveland has come under considerable fire from residents for failing to clear snow from residential streets during last week’s series of snow storms, locking some residents in their neighborhoods. There were even reports that Cleveland Police got stuck in the snow, forcing officers to respond to calls on foot, while tow trucks freed their cruisers.

In order to melt the ice and snow and make roads passable, most municipalities and residents rely heavily on road salt. Snow plows dump millions of pounds of salt on road surfaces, while homeowners apply it liberally to their driveways and sidewalks without so much as a thought. Bags of road salt are piled in stores throughout cities across the country. But, while this salt may help to address the problems we face each winter, it also comes at a serious cost.

Vox’s Brad Plumer laid out these costs in a recent post. Our heavy reliance on road salt eats away at our vehicles, roads, and bridges, costing the US approximately $16-19 billion in damages each year. And all of that leftover salt that piles up on our surfaces then washes into our waterways, where it wreaks havoc on ecosystems. It can harm amphibians, create dead zones in lakes, cause massive fish die-offs, and kill trees throughout watersheds. The concentration of salt in our water may also have consequences for humans, as at least 2% of drinking water in the US has chloride levels higher than the standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

This obsession with road salt also carries a toll for municipal governments. After last year’s extreme winter, many municipalities faced critical salt shortages. This deficit has driven up the cost of road salt; the City of Cleveland, for instance, has seen the price of road salt spike from $29 per ton last year to $51.22 per ton. The higher price of salt has corroded the city budget, eating up at least $3.5 million in funds.

Given all of these consequences, what can you do to help minimize our dependence on road salt? There are alternatives in existence, including sand, cinders, beet juice, and pickle brine. The Ohio Department of Transportation has even begun applying fracking brine to roads in Summit County. Unfortunately, most of these options are significantly more expensive and harder to come by. But there are steps that you can take to help curb salt use and mitigate its harmful effects. Here is a list of 6 steps on how you can adopt a low road salt diet, courtesy of the Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District:

  1. Shovel (and use the right tool for the job). The more snow and ice you remove manually, the less salt you will have to use and the more effective it will be when you do use it.
  2. 15ºF is too cold for salt. Most salts stop working at this temperature. Use sand instead for traction, but remember that sand does not melt ice
  3. For best results, apply salt to cleared surfaces. The salt crystals should not overlap but be spread out a few inches apart.
  4. More salt does not mean more melting. Use less than 4 pounds of salt per 1,000 square feet (an average parking spot is about 150 square feet). One pound of salt is approximately a heaping 12-ounce coffee mug.
  5. Sweep up extra. If salt or sand is visible on dry pavement it is no longer doing any work and will be washed away into your local streams thru a storm drain or ditch system.
  6. Even if the de-icer says it’s safe for pets – look at the ingredients! Calcium and magnesium chloride can burn their paws. Use a product with glycol or just use sand. And when you take your animals on a walk, cover their feet and/or wash them off after a walk.