A Green Winter Wonderland

Four eco-friendly ways to ditch damaging rock salt

It’s time for snowmen, snowball fights and snow angels. But it’s also time for icy sidewalks and snow drifts in the driveway. The standard go-to is the big bag of sodium chloride, better known as rock salt. Despite its natural sounding name, rock salt can do some serious damage to pets, kids, vehicles and our drinking water and groundwater supplies, not to mention your landscape and garden.

When sprinkled about, rock salt can cause a variety of health problems for cats and dogs that can not only ingest the crystals but can be affected by tainted snow. If animals get the de-icers into their systems, it can lead to vomiting, dehydration, liver problems and other digestive issues. Even if Fido doesn’t ingest the product, the salt can get stuck to his paws, leaving him with burned pads.

Rock salt isn’t the only culprit. There is a myriad of products containing all kinds of chemicals from antifreeze to potassium cholride to magnesium chloride. Each leaves its toxic footprint on the environment, damaging root systems and burning vegetation before making its way to our water sources. Calcium chloride is another popular option and while it doesn’t pose a threat to aquatic life, it does contribute to increased algae growth.

Even after the salt and de-icers dissipate, they leave a lasting mark on the environment. One of the biggest problems with salt is that it has a long-lasting impact. Even if we stopped using road salt altogether today, buildup would continue to find its way into our ground and drinking water for years.

The effects can be more pervasive than you think. In areas where road salt is applied, 60 to more than 90 percent of salt in the water is a result of road application according to a 2010 report from the Cary Institute. The problem is particularly bad in New York and New Jersey where large quantities of road salt are used each year. In North Jersey, water companies are required to warn consumers on low-sodium diets about the level of salt in the drinking water due to contamination from the de-icers. You can do your part by opting for a more eco-friendly option to stay slip-free. Here are four solutions to help you navigate winter safely whether you get a lot or a little snow.

1. Heated Driveway

A great option for areas with heavy and frequent snowfall, an electric driveway can be a bit pricey, but it will keep snow and ice off of your property for years. Using radiant heat underneath the pavement, most systems use sensors to turn themselves on and off so you don’t really have to lift a finger. There’s a large investment as most heated driveways require razing the existing driveway. Project costs vary greatly depending on the size, shape and location of your driveway, but the average cost is about $14 to $24 per square foot, according to Angie’s List. There may also be an added cost of upgrading your home’s electrical system as well.

2. Calcium Magnesium Acetate

This alternative to rock salt is a more eco-friendly option that you can find in stores all over the U.S. It’s specifically designed to melt the ice away without contaminating ground water and ruining plants. Rather than actually melting the snow, calcium magnesium acetate prevents snow particles from binding to each other, making it easier to scoop up and out of your way. The material is about as corrosive as standard tap water, biodegradable and much less corrosive than rock salt. The other great thing about the chemical is that it doesn’t wash away with the snow, reducing the number of applications necessary both during snowfall and between snowfalls as well as potential runoff.

3. Pet-friendly Formulas

There are a lot of pet- and kid-friendly products out there, but they’re not all equal. Many brands claim to be pet-friendly but aren’t much better than rock salt. Make sure to read the labels on packaging to make sure your choice is truly environmentally friendly. One good option is Safe Paw Ice Melter, made of a modified crystalline amide and special traction agents that attract solar heat and actually leave behind a shield to protect against ice accumulation. It’s a good bet that the pet-friendly formulas are at least a little better than rock salt.

4. Get Traction

If you don’t really need to get rid of the snow and don’t mind a little extra cleanup, there are a lot of other options to gain some much-needed traction. Besides the usual ideas of non-clumping cat litter or sand, you can use sawdust, gravel, straw or ashes from the fire pit. There are also several new products out there like EcoTraction, an OMRI Listed traction agent made from volcanic mineral that helps attract solar heat to melt snow and embeds into the ice to improve traction. It also works to absorb ice melters and can be re-used as a cleaner or soil amendment.