6 Reasons to Skip Salt this Winter

Rock salt (sodium chloride) is one of the most common and inexpensive ways that we deal with our icy driveways and walkways in winter.  However many of us are unaware of the numerous negative impacts that they have to our waterways, roadways, properties, gardens and health.  

Written by Meaghan Murphy

1. Pollutes our rivers and lakes

Most of the salt we use is flushed into storm drains and drainage ditches that empty directly into our rivers and lakes.  These freshwater ecosystems (particularly smaller ponds and creeks with limited ability to dilute and/or flush salts) are highly sensitive to spikes in salt concentrations which can reach chronic levels leading to the death of fish, amphibians and other aquatic organisms as well as an overall loss in biodiversity.

2. Contaminates drinking water/groundwater

Road salt can travel easily through soil into groundwater making it undrinkable overtime.

3. Ineffective in cold temperatures

Below -10 C, rock salt is ineffective at melting ice.  Winter temperatures in our watershed are often colder than -10 C, which means that all that salt isn’t even doing its job!

4. Damages property

The application of rock salts enhances the freeze-thaw cycling in winter, causing cracking and shifting to asphalt, concrete and masonry.  Rock salts are also corrosive in nature and cause damage to property, including our cars, and to structures, such as bridges.

5. Pesters our pets (and makes small children sick)

When our pets are outside, salt collects on their paws and in their fur.  When they return indoors, the salt/ice mixture melts and heats up, burning their paws and mouth causing skin redness and even ulcers.  Pets often lick the salt from their paws leading to vomiting, diarrhea, and other more serious complications.  Kids are not immune either.  When playing in the snow children can come in contact with ice pellets that can cause similar skin irritations.

6. Damages gardens and landscaping

In the spring, as the snow and ice melts and drains into your lawn and garden, soils can collect salt in high concentrations leading to damage to your lawn and garden plants by inhibiting a plant’s ability to uptake water and nutrients. Typically, plants suffering from the effects of salt have stunted or curled leaves with brown or yellow edges and are more susceptible to pests and disease. At the most extreme, salt exposure can kill plants, leading to bare patches in your lawn or garden.

Alternative Strategies for Fighting Ice

Most people’s go-to strategy for combatting ice is to use de-icers like rock salt or other chemicals to melt the ice, but most de-icers can have negative impacts on our environment (even the ones that claim to be environmentally safe). Instead of using a de-icer this winter, consider these alternatives.

1. The best alternative is a shovel!

Keep your walkway/driveway clear; shovel as soon and as often as you can.  If you have ice build-up you can use an ice-breaker/chopper for critical surfaces.

2. Go for traction not de-icers

  • Sand or gravel: A cheap way to add traction to icy surfaces with minimal environmental impacts.  Brick sand works best as it is coarse grained and you can buy it at most do-it-yourself building supply stores.
  • Kitty litter: If you have a cat you already have a great way to improve traction on icy surfaces.  The downside is it can turn to “clay soup” when the ice melts.
  • Ashes: If you have a fireplace you can repurpose the ashes to increase traction on your icy walkways.  Like sand, ashes can absorb sunlight and help melt ice.
  • ecoTraction: This product is a volcanic mineral that works in a similar way as these other products. It isn’t available in many stores but can be purchased online.

3. Put down a physical barrier

Before an ice event use a physical barrier over critical areas and remove it as soon as the storm is over. Thick plastic tarps and wooden boards work well.

4. Improve drainage on your property

Pointing downspouts away from walkways into gardens and soil and replacing concrete and asphalt surfaces with permeable ones will reduce the amount of water that collects and freezes on your walkways. These investments pay off in the summer as well by reducing runoff to storm sewers!

5. If you have to use a chemical de-icer, use it sparingly

  • Use chemical de-icers only in critical places and before ice has built up. Make sure you know what chemical you are buying and don’t be lured in by a product just because it has a “green label”.
  • Calcium magnesium acetate is not toxic to most plants and animals and is biodegradable, although it has been shown to deplete oxygen in some ponds. It is only effective up to -7 C (like rock salt) and is expensive (20x the price of rock salt).
  • Stay away from chlorides (sodium chloride, calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, potassium chloride). Despite some of them being touted as “green” they are all salts that negatively impact animals, plants and/or freshwater ecosystems and are listed as toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
  • Stay away from urea (also known as carbamide or carbonyl diamide).  This chemical is a nutrient that can lead to eutrophication in freshwater systems.

Want to multiply your impact?

Talk to the property manager at your work place, condominium, or at local businesses about the benefits of using salt-alternatives.

The majority of salts that get into our waterways are applied to roads by municipalities. Contact your local municipality and ask them what strategies they are using to reduce salt use and its environmental impacts in your community.

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Road Salt (1)



One response to “6 Reasons to Skip Salt this Winter”

  1. Angela says:

    Hi Riverkeeper,
    Thanks for this piece on salt. It is great at the first level (why not to use salt) but could use more work/depth on the chemical alternatives info.

    Please note:
    In your sources, dead link — http://greenventure.ca/wise-water-use/43-road-salts-alternatives

    This sentence needs editing because it confuses: “Our go-to strategy for combatting ice is to use de-icers like rock salt or other chemicals to melt the ice, but most de-icers can have negative impacts on our environment (even the ones that claim to be environmentally safe). ”

    Thanks for all your good work!