© skhoward | adobe stock

Sustainable landscaping practices are easy to define and put in practice, in part due to the vast amount of research on how methods impact the surrounding environment and the laws that legislate chemical usage. However, achieving sustainable snow and ice management practices is something the industry is still working toward. For environmentally-conscious companies, like Schill Grounds Management, this means establishing and following our own guidelines in determining what’s best for our customers, our company, and the planet.

In the nearly three decades we’ve been providing commercial snow removal and landscaping services to customers, we’ve prided ourselves on being stewards of the environment. And for the most part, we’ve been successful in this endeavor. Unfortunately, the practice of removing snow and ice isn’t the best for the earth. Ice-melt products like salt and liquid deicers are essential to keeping pavement safe for walking and driving. Likewise, each product has a different level of impact on surrounding watersheds and soil, as well as plant and animal life. It’s forced us to do our due diligence and to take a close look at the following.

Deicers and Ice Melt Dangers

Over the years, signs of pollution in our water and soil has caused more people to take a closer look at the exact toll road salt and deicers have taken on the environment.

For example, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that 70 percent of the salt applied to the roads near the Twin Cities makes its way into the region’s watershed. This impacts not only aquatic life, but it also takes a toll on municipal water systems.

Likewise, research shows bulk salt applied to pavement colder than 15 degrees Fahrenheit has little to no effect. For property managers and snow removal contractors, this means pretreating roads and walkable surfaces before they reach that temperature is essential. When done correctly, the result is less bagged ice-melt material on roads and walkways.

Chlorides Vs. Acetates Vs. Carbohydrate Deicers

In addition to rock salt, there are numerous ways the chemical makeup of your preferred deicer impacts the surrounding ecosystem.

The two main types of deicers are chlorides or acetate-based. Without getting too far into the chemistry of these products, it’s important to understand that chlorides and acetates are both salts, but they are derived from different compounds—chlorides from hydrochloric acid and acetates from acetic acid. It’s this difference that determines the effect that the deicers will have on the surrounding environment.

Chloride deicers are widely considered to be the greatest polluters because they’re not biodegradable, which means they easily make their way into groundwater and soil. Plants that come into contact with chlorides can have a difficult time absorbing water and nutrients from the soil, causing them to dry out.

While acetate-based deicers are biodegradable and can result in much less runoff than chloride-based products, research shows they also make it more difficult for soil to retain water and air. Depending on the location the acetates are applied, this could result in structural vulnerabilities to concrete structures over time.

Carbohydrate deicers like beet sugars are often praised because they’re a natural, non-salt alternative to industrial deicers. However, they are not immune to shortcomings either.

For one, these products don’t melt ice, but rather lower the freezing point of ice more than salt can and helps bulk material to stick to roads better, requiring less applied. Therefore, it’s most effective when used alongside salt or liquid material rather than in place of it.

For a comprehensive table summarizing the properties of deicing agents, enter https://stormwater.pca.state.mn.us/index.php?title=Table_summarizing_of_properties_of_deicing_agents into your browser.

Harmful to Animals

Salt and other deicers applied to pavement -- regardless of whether they’re chloride or carbohydrate based -- can attract animals who like the product’s taste. This can lead to an increase in roadkill accidents. As mentioned, deicers affect the salt content of the water, and when local water sources are polluted, animals are often the first to pay the price. Research indicates that freshwater amphibians like newts and salamanders become stunted and deformed when exposed to waters that are high in salt, and the animals that feed on them suffer as a result, as well.

Increasing Sustainability: What Can We Do?

Looking to make a positive change? Then the initial step is to commit to reducing your impact on the environment while maintaining safety as the first priority.

Simply put, deicer on the roads and walkways means fewer crashes and slip-and-fall incidents. That being said, there are many practices to implement that are better for the planet. Here are some to considers.

Alternative Fuels

At Schill we integrate alternative fuels whenever possible. For example, propane fuels our fleet of 100-plus lawn mowers, and many of the trucks and snowplows we use for snow and ice removal run on diesel.

While it wasn’t the case even 10 years ago, diesel is now the most carbon-efficient fuel for more modern, larger vehicles, as they can have 40 percent fewer emissions than vehicles that run on conventional gas.

Introduce Liquids and Blends

No deicer or ice-melt product is without adverse effects, but liquid deicers and blended products can have a much smaller impact on the surrounding environment.

Adopt liquid deicer as a pretreatment on the properties you manage. This will not only save your customers thousands of dollars’ worth of bagged material, but you’ll be able to save clients thousands of dollars in plant replacements the next spring by using winter products that are less harmful to nearby trees and shrubs.

Natural products like beet juice and cheese brines -- which, again, can still negatively impact the environment is -- aren’t the most effective for commercial use because they aren’t as effective at melting ice and therefore still need to be combined with other ice melt products.

Instead, use blended products that will allow you to reduce the amount of bulk salt you’re using. For example, the liquid deicer we use is more effective than natural alternatives, therefore allowing us to use much less salt than they would.

Calibrate Equipment

Perhaps most importantly, the professional snow and ice management industry must take responsibility for setting standards for how much deicer is appropriate to use in certain situations. Therefore, use equipment that’s calibrated to make sure you know exactly how much salt or deicer is being applied, and you’re only putting down what’s necessary.

Calculate how much deicer needs to be used per snow/ice event based on road and ambient temperatures, as well as the efficacy of the product being applied.

We all want to be better stewards of the environment. Therefore, it’s important to talk with clients about how sustainability can positively affect a company’s bottom line and improve corporate culture, and how they can partner with you through your best practices to make sustainability a reality in snow and ice management.