Many cities with harsh winters turn to salt to melt ice and make roads safer, but while this helps out drivers, it doesn’t do the environment any favors. Fifteen to 17 million tons of road salt are used on US roadways each winter, contaminating waterways and natural ecosystems while degrading steel infrastructure. Fortunately, some communities are turning to a more eco-friendly alternative: the humble beet.
The extract of sugar beets can be combined with traditional ice-melting chlorides to effectively lower the freezing point of water─just like salt─but without the same degree of corrosive effects. This special power of beets was first discovered in the 1990s, and more and more cities are choosing to adopt the practice each year.
Minnesota, a state infamous for its harsh winters, is embracing this technique and voted in 2020 to introduce a variety of more environmentally-friendly additives to traditional salt mixtures. Even further north, Winnipeg, Manitoba has made their beet treatment a permanent aspect of road care.
K-Tech Speciality Coatings in Ashley, Indiana is a key manufacturer of beet-based road solutions. The company makes Beet Heet, a substance made from beet molasses combined with chlorides. Beet Heet is not only effective, but also more affordable than rock salt and less likely to clog up snow equipment. Unfortunately, vegetable-based ice solutions do still have the potential to negatively impact water-swelling insects and contribute to algae blooms, but variety helps. Stream ecologist Danelle Haake told Michigan Radio, “A little bit of two bad things is probably not as bad as a lot of one bad thing.”
Beets aren’t the only natural solution to safer roads. Cities have also explored how pickle juice, cheese brine, and leftover beer have similar effects. We also wrote about one group of researchers using fish properties to offer more road traction.