Winnipeg students hype hemp at city hall hoping to slash salt use on slippery winter roads

Three students from Westwood Collegiate have pitched city councillors on their winning idea to reduce harmful winter road salt by using hemp to help de-ice city streets.

Trio from Westwood Collegiate pitch city on ways to cut salt and its impact on the environment

Westwood Collegiate students Jasper Bain, Megan Morant and Angela Gamayao says the damage to the environment from using salt on the roads must end. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC )

It felt like the trio of Westwood Collegiate students had appeared at city hall dozens of times.

Grade 11 students Jasper Bain, Angela Gamayao, and Megan Morant came to the Infrastructure Renewal and Public Works committee to make the case for mixing salt — with hemp hurd.

The city is exploring ways to cut its use of road salt as a means of providing traction on slippery winter streets. 

Inspired by a contest — Caring for our Watersheds — sponsored by agricultural company Nutrien and administered through Ducks Unlimited at Oak Hammock Marsh, the trio started the project as part of their chemistry class.

With the help of their teacher they began experimenting by mixing salt with locally-gown hemp.

"Hemp hurd is actually created from the stalk of the hemp plant. So, the stalk is something that is not used for a lot of different things right now. But we think that using it as an aid to salt-based de-icers on the roads could be a really good place that it could be used," Bain said.

Hemp Hurd mixed with much less salt than currently used on Winnipeg roads could reduce damage to trees, plants and in the waterways, the students say. (Trevor Brine/CBC )

The students found a third of the salt mixed with hemp hurd successfully melted ice nearly as much as salt on its own. 

The approximately 26,000 tonnes of salt the City of Winnipeg uses to de-ice the streets not only erodes concrete, bridges, vehicles and other infrastructure, but has an ongoing impact on the environment. It leeches into the soil and waterways and harms plants and trees.

"At the end of the winter season you see all these white marks on the roads and you never really knew what they were from, but that was a result of dried up salt residue on our roads and it really make me think about how much we really are using and the fact that it's everywhere," Gamayao said.

The three students' project was in the top 10 of 365 written proposals and went on to place second among those finalists, winning $900 for themselves and their school. 

In the next phase, they can use part of $10,000 provided by Nutrien to find external partners and do further trials of their idea.

An eye was always on the prize of pitching to the city. 

"We were really working hard together for this project and our end goal was to get the city to notice. I know in our project this morning I talked about how we are going to start this pilot project, but we are hoping to that we be able to use within our school division and even our city," Morant said. 

The three students' presentation at city hall received a positive response from public works chair Coun. Matt Allard. (CBC )

The trio received praise from committee chair Coun. Matt Allard (St. Boniface), who received their request to present at city hall and bumped them up on the agenda to hear from them first.

"They reached out to my office last week and we forwarded their study and methodology to the public works department for their review. I'm also very interested in the outcome of their pilot project at Westwood Collegiate next winter, and feel a great sense of optimism and inspiration for the future hearing them speak," Allard said in an email to CBC. 

The trio will push their effort into a trial stage in their Grade 12 year by spreading a mix of salt and hemp hurd on the parking lot and walkways of the school and taking watershed samples for analysis. 

The three students credit the help they received from chemistry teacher Dave Shoesmith along with guidance from Amanda Benson at Ducks Unlimited to get this far. 

They say the many hours of work strengthened already good friendships and look forward to getting to the next phase of the work. 

The committee didn't just hear from the three students about alternatives to road salt.

Diana Nicholson from Cypher Environmental told councillors her company has an anti-icing product — a salt derivative that looks and acts like salt, but is non-toxic and non-corrosive and is environmentally friendly.