Just beet it: Cities, states look for deicer alternatives

A combination of beet juice and salt brine is one alternative gaining traction.
Traffic backs up behind snowplows on Interstate 35W Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

The search for a better road deicing solution has resulted in some creative possibilities, with a mixture of beet extract and salt brine gaining traction in several localities.

Salt has for decades been the go-to method for melting ice from roads – especially in the Midwest and Northeast, a region known as the “Salt Belt.” But while salt can make roads safer and reduce accidents, it is corrosive and does damage to cars, bridges and waterways.

The search for an effective alternative has evolved into something of a holy grail mission.

Over the last decade, several cities and states have deployed beet juice, including Washington, D.C., Kansas, Minnesota and Missouri.

“Beet juice has been proven to lessen the corrosive properties of the salt that we use to apply to the roads,” the Missouri Department of Transportation explained in a fact sheet.

This winter, the Michigan Department of Transportation is experimenting with liquid-only deicers — including beet juice — on three routes in the state. The pilot project is the result of a 2020 law that instructed the department to evaluate the performance of agricultural additives to melt ice on roads, highways and bridges.

But even the liquid applications are still salt based.

“Really the only thing that melts the snow is the salt,” explained John Richard, a spokesperson for the Michigan DOT. “[The agricultural byproduct is] just an additive to make the chloride or the salt work more effectively and work for a larger area.”

There are also non-chloride deicers, but those are significantly more expensive.

In an average year, Michigan uses half-a-million tons of salt to clear the roads. The state has also long used liquid treatments which are more effective at lower temperatures.

While beet juice has grabbed a lot of headlines, it is not the only agricultural or food byproduct that has been repurposed for road deicer.

In Wisconsin, road crews have used cheese brine, a byproduct of cheesemaking, which helps the salt stick to the road surface. Beginning in 1997, a company in Massachusetts started using byproducts from the beer making process to create a blended deicer.

But even agriculture byproduct-based deicer products can have environmental drawbacks, including concerns about the effects on aquatic life from runoff.

The search for effective alternatives to salt has proven to be a winding road and there is no magic solution on the near horizon. In the meantime, salt remains the go-to product to clear the roads. The United States Geological Survey has estimated that highway deicing accounts for 43% of the salt that’s used in the U.S.

As concerns over the environmental impacts mount, there has been a push to get cities and states to reduce their use of salt or adopt “smart salting” policies. Minnesota has considered legislation to create a voluntary certification program for commercial salt applicators.

Other methods to reduce salt usage include pre-treating roads before a snow or ice event.