Canadian Municipalities Use Beet Juice to De-Ice Roads

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What do you get when you mix beet juice and salt? A nicely de-iced highway!

This unusual combination of ingredients is becoming more common as cities and municipalities realize how effective it is at keeping roads clear and reducing the amount of salt needed.

When beet juice is sprayed onto rock salt, it makes the mixture stickier, bonding it to the pavement. Salt tends to bounce from the roads, but beet juice lowers the bounce rate from 30 percent to 5 percent, meaning there’s less run-off into the surrounding environment and municipalities can get away with using less salt overall.

The city of Cowansville, Quebec, which just introduced the practice this year, estimates it will use 30 percent less salt, recouping the initial investment of $200,000 for new equipment in less than two years. The Niagara region of Ontario reports:

“The use of sugar beet juice will trim down the amount of road salt from 85 kg (187 lbs) per lane kilometre to 78 kg (172 lbs) per lane kilometre, while still achieving the same results.”

Beet juice also helps salt to melt ice at lower temperatures, making it particularly effective during deep freezes. The city of Toronto doesn’t pull out the beet juice truck until it’s at least -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit), at which point rock salt alone becomes useless.

"The city’s salt trucks are already equipped with containers that are normally filled with brine — a salt-water solution — that sprays on the rocks of salt as they come out. That brine is replaced with the beet juice."

If you’re wondering why Canadian roadways aren’t pink, it’s because the sugar beet from which the juice is derived actually looks like “an obese white carrot.” A thick, molasses-like syrup is left over after processing and this, according to the Toronto Star, is run through “an ‘alkaline degradation process’ that thins it out and gives it a better ‘melt value’.” The liquid that goes onto the highways is brown and has a distinct smell. Kevin Goldfuss, municipal director of Williams Lake, British Columbia, said, “It’s kind of like caramel. It smells like a Tootsie Roll.”

Toronto has used the method for years, although because beet juice is four times more expensive than salt, it’s used only when temperatures plunge and in higher-risk locations, such as hills and bridges. Halifax has used it on the Saint John Harbour Bridge. In Quebec, Laval and Cowansville are experimenting with adding beet juice to their standard salt trucks for regular application to reduce the environmental impact of salt. The town of Williams Lake, B.C., uses a proactive approach, spraying roads with beet juice and salt prior to snowfall:

“It lowers the temperature required for rock salt to melt ice, and can last for two to five days — meaning it can last through multiple snowstorms.”

Beet juice on our highways does not address the bigger issue of why these roads need to be de-iced so thoroughly and regularly – and that is our obsession with still being able to get places quickly, even when conditions are bad. If we all slowed down considerably and put good snow tires on our vehicles, much of the salt application would not be necessary.

It could also make driving more pleasant if we didn't use salt at all and kept roads snow-covered and white, as they do in Scandinavia. In the words of TreeHugger commenter James Costa, a heavy duty mechanic for Quebec’s Ministry of Transportation, “I prefer a snowy secondary road to go to work instead than the juicy highway.”