Green Tip: Road Salt and the Environment

Green Tips | January 11, 2018

While road salt, 40% sodium and 60% chloride, is the most efficient way to de-ice our roads, the compound’s environmental impact gives plenty of room for pause after the snow melts.

Road salt reduces the ground’s freezing temperature and increases wheel traction on pavement. Salt trucks deposit nearly 137 pounds of road ice per person in the USA, or 122 billion tons, as of 2014. In exchange for its short-term efficiency, this salting practice is well worn and has long-term environmental consequences.

When the ice melts the salt flows into surrounding streams, lakes, and grassy areas. The salt water is more dense than fresh water; thus it pools at the bottoms of lake and ocean beds. This deprives amphibians and fish of necessary nutrients trapped beneath the salt cloud. This damage can be permanent: reverse osmosis, the only known procedure to undo the artificial salinization of water, is prohibitively expensive.  

On top of the water, migrating birds can mistake salt pools for fish, and consuming the sodium fatal. In some states such as Minnesota, high water concentrations of salt has altered the taste of drinking water. One teaspoon of salt contaminates 5 gallons of freshwater forever. Until local governments and Environmental scientists find suitable long-term alternatives, the results from salting our water sources are here to stay.
Off the road, the sodium flow-off creates a receding hairline effect: a retreat of vegetation and dehydration of trees. The kicked-up salt can be spotted, and its effects still are noticeable, up to 600 feet away from the original road salting.

In addition to eroding your car, the salt runoff causes $1500 in erosion damage on bridges and other transportation infrastructure per ton of salt. In a political climate where the long-term viability of American transportation infrastructure is in question, salting our roads adds further strain on our roads and bridges.
Road salt is also bad news for wildlife, cars, and drivers. Salt on sidewalks can lead to irritation and cracking of pets’ paws; salt also draws deer and moose nearby and onto the road, resulting in more frequent collisions with vehicles.

But as an individual, how can you reduce your environmental impact?

-Shovel your snow and ice before it melts and becomes a muddled slush puddle.
-Put salt on ice only
-For short-term alternatives, you can use beet juice, sand, coffee grinds, or sawdust (all friction reducers) as non-damaging alternatives to salt.
-Support the use of solar paneled roads, volcanic rock (a friction-reducer, like sandpaper), and cheese brine (to reduce salt consumed) when technology is tested and available for use on highways on a massive scale.


By: Willy Kane

< Back to Citizen’s Toolkit

Get Involved