Posted originally on The Ottawa Citizen
It’s the time of year when we either take out the shovels or take out the road salt.
De-icing your steps and driveway using traditional road salt comes at a steep environmental and financial price. Environmentally it increases the salinity (salt content) of soils, damages plants, contaminates ground and surface water, and leads to the death of aquatic life. Financially, because salt is corrosive, it damages fabric, metal (cars, trucks, bicycles) and our roads. This can total more than $5 billion a year.
What is the issue exactly? When road salt dissolves in water, it forms sodium and chloride ions; it is the chloride ions that are most problematic for roadside plants, for aquatic ecosystems and particularly amphibians, fish and invertebrates. Chloride ions are quite persistent in water, so the chloride concentration in streams can remain high long after its initial introduction.Recent results from a study by the Ottawa Riverkeeper revealed that chloride levels in Pinecrest, Graham and Moore creeks exceeded the Canadian Council of Minister for the Environment (CCME) chronic toxicity threshold in all samples assessed, and exceeded the acute (short-term) toxicity threshold on several occasions. From January through March (as a direct result of the application of road salt), all three creeks contained chloride concentrations at a level that was unsafe for many aquatic organisms. As well, other studies have shown that increasing the saltiness (salinity) of natural water ways can make it easier for invasive and toxic species to thrive and spread.Canadians use up to seven million tonnes of salt each year to help clear icy roads. Salt corrosion is pricey and dangerous for cars as it can damage brakes and increases vehicle depreciation, with an estimated cost of $800 a year (updated for inflation). Although corrosion-resistant coatings have improved, they are hardly “green.”Salt also corrodes the rebar in many concrete structures such as bridges and buildings, leading to their accelerated destruction. It is estimated that total damage done by road salt on infrastructure is as high as $687 per tonne of salt – a high price to pay when alternatives exist.Two alternatives that are easier on your wallet, your pets and the environment were tested last year by Ottawa residents as part of the “Halt the Salt Challenge” organized by the Ottawa South Eco Action Network. Residents found that traction aids Ecotraction (a volcanic mineral) and Eco Ice Grip (wood chips impregnated with magnesium chloride) were both helpful in preventing slips and falls, with the added bonus that they are made in Canada.
This year, before reaching for the salt, consider what you want to achieve. Do you need to completely melt the ice and snow on your driveway? Or do you just need to make sure there is a safe path to walk for you, your neighbours and your kids (four-legged or two)? If you want to minimize your financial and environmental impact answer these three questions:
• Am I choosing the right product? (Road salt will melt ice, while traction aids such as Eco Ice grip will prevent you from slipping.)
• Am I using the right amount? (2 tbsp of road salt will melt one square metre of space.)• Am I applying it at the right time? (Road salt only melts ice above -15 C;) if it’s colder than that, or going to get colder, you are throwing your money away. During early winter and spring, check the weather: if it’s going to warm up significantly over the next day, you may not need to use anything)
If you find, like other residents, that the alternatives are effective, consider approaching your condo board, apartment landlord and even the city, to reassess what type of product they use, or how much and when they use it. We have all seen the piles of road salt that can be left behind, wasting our tax dollars, damaging our roads and our cars. We can do better – and there is much benefit to be had.