The Current

Beet juice and cheese brine: what cities are spreading on streets to replace corrosive road salt

Scientists are calling on Canadian cities to stop using road salt because it's toxic to the environment and causes billions of dollars of damage to infrastructure and cars.
An Ottawa salt truck makes its way down Queen Street on Jan. 16. Corrosive road salt is responsible for $3 billion in vehicle depreciation each year in Quebec and Ontario alone. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

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Salt all over the roads — it just wouldn't be a Canadian winter without it.

In fact, we use about seven million tonnes of it each year to keep from slipping on ice and snow.

But some experts are warning that it comes with a cost. The salt itself may be cheap, but it wreaks havoc on our roads, bridges, cars, and the environment. As salt corrodes metal, it has caused as much as $5 billion in damage to infrastructure in Canada, and is responsible for $3 billion in vehicle depreciation each year in Quebec and Ontario alone.

Some cities are trying to solve the problem by using beet juice, or cheese brine.

Salt also runs off the roads with the melted ice, and ends up in rivers, lakes and streams, causing damage to freshwater ecosystems, where increasing concentrations can harm reproduction of some types of animals or even kill them if it's high enough.

Once the ice melts, salt gets into the water, affecting the environment and ecosystem. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto, has seen salt levels rising more quickly in recent years due to road salt use, said David Lembcke, manager of environmental science and monitoring for the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority. Salt is also starting to get into our groundwater, which is often used as a drinking water source, he said.

"That's the real challenge with salt, it loves water," Lembcke tells The Current's guest host Gillian Findlay. "Once it gets in water, there's just about nothing that gets it out of water… Really, when it comes to stopping it going in, it's stopping putting it down in the first place."

There have even been cases of saltwater animals now living in Canada's freshwater ecosystems, because of the increased salt levels.

"These are completely different ecosystems," said Lembcke. "It would be like finding a polar bear in the jungle."

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Lembcke is trying to persuade cities to use less salt. But Norm Parkes, the executive director of highway operations for B.C., said that though he's very aware of the downsides of salt — his organization keeps an eye on resulting infrastructure damage — it's hard to find replacements.

"Salt is one of the most cost-effective ways of keeping traction and keeping our roads safe and of course safety is our number one priority," said Parkes. "You never know with innovation so never say never, but I think there will always be, in the short term, a place for the good use of salt and the judicious use of salt."

Some areas are turning to innovative solutions. Calgary and some parts of B.C. are testing out beet juice as an alternative, and Wisconsin is spreading cheese brine on their roads.

Stephen Coates, president of Earth Innovations, said that melting the ice is not necessary. His company makes products that stick to the top of the ice, giving it a sandpaper-like texture. (Lisa Johnson/CBC)

What all of these products have in common is that they melt the ice — but that's not necessary, said Stephen Coates, president of Earth Innovations. Their product Ecotraction, made from a volcanic mineral, sticks to the top of the ice without melting it, giving the ice the texture of sandpaper and providing traction.

Coates said Ecotraction is more expensive than salt, but that less of it is needed to stop slips and slides. Plus, it stays in place even if the ice melts and refreezes with the weather. It also doesn't cause the expensive damage to infrastructure, he said.

Mississauga, Ontario, is using the product in a pilot project in parks and pedestrian areas. But it's hard to shake the public from the idea that ice has to melt to make roads and sidewalks safe, said Coates.

"That of course for us, on the marketing and advertising side, has been the big problem," Coates tells Findlay. "We're in a product category in stores that's called ice melters — and the one thing that we don't do is melt ice."

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Rosa Kim.