It's Time to Put Our Roads on a Low Salt Diet

CC BY 2.0. Too much salt on my neighbor's sidewalk/ Lloyd Alter

It is yet another way that our cars are killing us.

Juan Alsace is the US Consul General in Toronto, Canada, a role that usually involves keeping out of the public eye. But he is on a very public campaign to get North Americans to cut back on the use of road salt. It's a big problem. Road salt is bad for buildings, rusts out cars, kills vegetation, affects aquatic life and makes our little dog cry when she is walking.

Alsace even made a silly video of himself eating over-salted Buffalo wings (he's from Buffalo originally) and tells Matt Galloway of the CBC that in some rivers and streams flowing into the Great Lakes, there are salt levels similar to seawater. He says that 80 percent of the problem evidently comes from municipal and private parking lots. Alsace says that they could all do the job with 70 percent less salt by metering it out carefully, and using alternates; in Wisconsin they use cheese brine, while others have tried beet wastewater left over from sugar beet processing.

smart about salt

© Smart about Salt

The organization that Alsace supports, Smart About Salt, has some good recommendations that would cut down the use of salt, the main one being that we should just use it for ice. In many cases people are using it to melt snow because it is less work than picking up a shovel.

They also recommended actions that people could do that would reduce the need for salt, such as wearing proper non-slip boots on our feet and snow tires on our cars. The fact is that it snows so much less now that people have almost forgotten how to deal with it -- how to drive or walk in it. And when people fall, they often sue. According to Tim Alamenciak in TVO, some states are changing the laws, like in New Hampshire where snow removal companies can get liability relief if they take training.

“What we heard from the contractors is that it was very challenging for them to reduce given the liability concerns. One of the reasons they put down so much salt is to prevent liability in a slip-and-fall case,” says Ted Diers, administrator in the Department of Environmental Services’ water division. “What we did was [write] a bill for our legislature that would give limited liability relief for people that have gone through our Green SnowPro training program.”

Toronto writer Shawn Micallef has also been on the case after his dog went on strike. Canadian car owners should all be complaining; it is estimated in Ontario and Quebec that rust from salt causes an extra $3 billion in vehicle depreciation each year. According to VOX,

The US now spends $2.3 billion each year to remove snow and ice from highways. It then costs another $5 billion to pay for the resulting damage caused by salt. And that's not even counting the cost of salting cities or rural roads.

Of course, it would not be a TreeHugger post if I didn't complain that this is also all about cars -- the parking lots that need salting, the parking garages and bridges that are disintegrating. As Brad Plumer noted on Vox,

Before World War II, few US cities used salt in the winter. When snow fell, local governments would plow the roads and then spread sand and cinders around to improve traction. Cars would don snow chains. And people generally accepted that the roads weren't always passable in icy conditions. But as America's highways expanded and became ever more crucial to the economy, that changed. Increasingly, truckers and commuters needed to be able to drive in all conditions.

That's why I wrote earlier:

Road salt destroys roads, shortens the lives of cars, kills vegetation and now, we know that it is harming our watersheds. Better alternatives would be to reduce speed limits in winter, make snow tires mandatory as they do in Quebec, and provide better public transit and other alternatives to driving, instead of destroying the environment to satisfy a need for speed.

It really is just another side effect of our crazy, car dominated transportation system, with a pinch of salt.