Is Green a Color or an Objective?

by Rob English

“Environmentally friendly” is a term that is applied with a spatula in today’s products’ labels in ever increasing numbers.   What does it mean?  Does it mean it’s better for nature, people, pets, or for the profit line of the company offering it?    In the industry and elsewhere, we see a marked increase in “green-washing” of products and issues; that is that something is claimed to be environmentally better but there is no science to back it up and ultimately, it’s just a label with a lot of green ink.

Most of us think of environmental issues largely as “pollution”.  In this context, the US EPA considers two fundamental sources of pollution; Point Source, and, Non-Point Source.  In simple terms a pollutant is a substance that enters the environment and elevates the “natural” background levels of chemistry in that environment.   Deicing materials fall into non-point source pollution as they are first applied for public safety and then migrate into the environment; wetlands, rivers, storm drains, and groundwater.   But often we have to consider the environment beyond just groundwater such as roadside vegetation and the animals that live in that environment.

In an attempt to unravel the reams of misinformation, consumer confusion, and, outright deceptive label claims, we will try to address each component of environmental impact from deicers that every property owner should think about as they evaluate their choices of deicing materials.
For the past sixty years, since the onset of road salt use for winter maintenance, sodium chloride levels have been steadily rising in North American rivers and tributaries.   Sometimes, the deicers are in direct contact with public water supplies, and sometimes they are carried to the low-lying areas of our environment through melting and runoff.  To put this into context, in the US we add (apply) over one million truckloads (20 million tons) of road salt to our environment every year.   Packaged deicers are a few million or so tons on top of that.  Removing salt from the environment is difficult if not impossible once it is down and moving in runoff.   Capturing runoff and using reverse osmosis and/or membrane separation are expensive, time consuming, and to my knowledge no public entity is currently removing salt from runoff anywhere in North America.

The true nature of deicer environmental impact is a problem that is widely misunderstood.  If current trends continue in the coming decades aquatic life will suffer and water supplies will be threatened. Sodium is a concern for people with medical conditions such as hypertension.  Governments need to decide on which end of the process to spend dwindling public funds: environmentally better deicers for the roads or new treatments for the waters they pollute.  Both cost more.

It is very important to remember always that the only reason we ever put down any deicer is for public safety.  There is no practical reason to apply deicers with the sole exception of public safety and it is important that the benefits that deicers provide are carefully balanced against any adverse consequences of their use.   Literally billions of dollars of damage from traffic and pedestrian accidents are avoided by the use of deicers.   Before indicting any deicer, please consider how life would be without it and whether the risks outweigh the rewards and adverse consequences.

While grandiose and often patently false claims of environmental fitness are widely found on packaged deicers, more and more we are seeing that trend bleeding into bulk products with agricultural,  fermentation by-product, and sugar based additives making over-reaching claims.  These additives are frequently corn sweetener based, or beet sugar based, or even just plain molasses, but they are only added to road salt in relatively small quantities while celebrated in the marketing materials as if they were the only component.   Road salt additives for the most part seem to definitely provide some benefits, but it is not unusual to find alternatives costing up to ten times or more than the basic salt while only providing a fractional improvement in performance enhancement.

One of my pet-peeves in this context is the claim that any additive to road salt suddenly makes the entire mixture bio-degradable.   It is impossible for any inorganic salt product (sodium chloride-magnesium chloride-calcium chloride) to become bio-degradable by the simple addition of an organic sugar component.   The additive might be biodegrade, but the salt cannot according to all laws of inorganic chemistry.   Claims that any salt based material is biodegradable are patent falsehoods and they intentionally deceive the buyer for the purpose of profit.   Do not simply assume the marketing claims of any product are true because there is no truth in labeling in the deicing industry and there is no penalty for lying; at least not yet.
Biodegradable is not always a good thing; bacteria that break down the organic chemical additives consume oxygen – and low oxygen levels are another problem in many urban streams.   The EPA has guidelines for and regulates biological oxygen demand (BOD) because high BOD’s can choke off an aquatic ecosystem.   On the other end of the spectrum is adding problematic macronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium which feed eutrophication – algae growth – which chokes off aquatic ecosystems by over-feeding them with nutrients.     We get complaints that many additives stain and stink like rotting vegetables.

For packaged melters, a fancy bag with pictures of mountains and puppies with a catchy name and lots of friendly words and official looking seals of approvals on it is merely a wrapper and nothing more.    Start by ignoring the appearance of the wrapper and focus only on the chemistry of what’s in the bag.   Label green-washing is pandemic in the deicing chemical industry and it is a relatively new phenomenon – maybe the last five to ten years – and it is happening with exponentially increasing use.

As we begin to consider aspects of environmental fitness deicing products, we must first reduce all the variables to a common denominator: the chemistry of the product and the chemistry of the environment that you are trying to protect.   No matter what anyone wants to claim about a product being anything, in order to properly evaluate the environmental “benefits” the chemistry of the product is the core of evaluation.

”Environmental” impact of deicers may come in any number of forms:

  1. Pollution to water
    • Drinking water supplies worry about
      • Elevated sodium because hypertensive users might be placed at risk with elevated sodium levels stemming from use of road salt for example.
      • Elevated chlorine levels
      • Elevated biological oxygen demand and potential eutrophication – algae growth fed by deicers like urea, acetates, formates, and, other fertilizer macro nutrients (N-P-K) commonly used for deicing.
      • Elevated levels of heavy metals that may come along with any material and particularly with mined materials where contaminants are not routinely evaluated
    • Rivers and waterways worry about elevated levels of anything that is unnatural to that waterway.   This covers everything from the deicer itself to the contaminants that are part of the material.
  2. Impact to infrastructure
    • A multilevel structural concrete parking garage uses a reinforcing bar skeleton which may be susceptible to corrosion from many deicers
    • A concrete walkway may be damaged by increased freeze-thaw cycles from freeze point depression deicers
    • A bridge constructed of steel may have increased corrosion leading to failure
    • Certain types of porous pavement, found increasingly in campuses where Federal Storm water recharge laws are calling for less solid pavement which prevents groundwater recharge, are extremely susceptible to freeze-thaw damage since these materials are fully saturated with deicer brines.
    • Corrosion to vehicles and equipment
    • Doorways, stairways, fasteners on decking are potentially corroded by deicers
  3. Impact to landscape features
    • Walkways constructed of decorative stamped concrete or brick may have efflorescence
    • Marble or granite steps and flagstones set in concrete mortar
    • Turf and shrub exposure to deicers
  4. Regulatory driven:
    • Order of conditions by a conservation commission to not use ‘salt’
    • Prohibition due to rivers protection
    • Coastal protection such as harbors, waterfronts, and navigable waterways

Chlorides are near the top of the list of components that the EPA wants reduced.   You can quickly list commonly available deicers by descending order of their chloride content in commercial form; rock salt, calcium chloride, potassium chloride, magnesium chloride, followed by all the non-chloride products.   Is chloride content what you’re trying to eliminate in your environment?    If it’s Sodium that is the problem, then again simply use the chart below to arrange the listed products by sodium content and then focus on the ones with the lowest sodium content.

If you are evaluating a deicer for use in your new porous paved parking lot, where all the rain, snow, ice, and deicing materials will seep directly into the ground below, understanding if the chemistry needs of the affected groundwater should be at the core of your decision making.  If you are trying to reduce the total chlorides, then salt products with naturally lower chloride levels like magnesium chloride hexahydrate might be a good option.   Road salt contains 62% chlorine but magnesium chloride hexahydrate contains only 34%, so by changing the product you can cut the sodium out nearly entirely and reduce the chloride by 50%.   The performance improvement may get more melting effectiveness further allowing for reductions in what is seeping into the environment.    If you are on top of a public water supply, then perhaps non-chloride deicers should be considered provided the BOD and macronutrient loadings are not going to become a new problem.  Frequently nitrates are also on the environmental reduction list so using UREA for example might be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

The chart below gives basic information on common deicers that could be helpful in establishing an environmental evaluation:

Product Cost Characteristics Chemistry
Sodium Chloride
$75.00/ton · Inexpensive, lowest practical
temperature 25° F
· Widely available
· 61% Chloride
· 39% Sodium
Calcium Chloride
Flake $300/ton,
pellet $400/ton
· Melts ice at temperatures of -25° F
· If used as recommended, will not harm
· 58% total chlorides (anhydrous)
· less than 5% sodium
Magnesium Chloride (MgCl2:XH2O) Flake $300/ton,
Pellet $360/ton
· Melts ice at temperatures of -12° F
· Low toxicity, will not harm vegetation
· 34% chlorides
· less than 3% sodium
Potassium Chloride
$750/ton · Lowest practical temperature: 18° F
· Fertilizer macronutrient –
62% potassium (0-0-62)
· 47% chlorides
· 50% potassium
CO(NH2) 2
$550/ton · Lowest practical temperature: 15° F
· Fertilizer macronutrient –
46% nitrogen (46-0-0)
· 46% Nitrogen
No chlorides
· BOD (biological oxygen demand)
Calcium Magnesium Acetate “CMA”
$2,500/ton · Will not melt below 20° F
· Same toxicity as road salt
· Biodegradable
· No chlorides
· BOD (biological oxygen demand)
Sodium Acetate “NAAC“
$2,500/ton · Will melt ice below 20° F
· Same toxicity as road salt
· Biodegradable
· No chlorides
· BOD (biological oxygen demand)

We have had the benefit of hearing many outrageous assertions about snow and ice products over the past three decades, and the one that we see most often is misinformation.    If a plowing customer says that they don’t want “salt” on their property, they need to be very specific about what salt they do not want and it helps if you can understand why.   We’ve had many occasions to appear before regulatory boards who handed down an order of conditions on a property without the benefit of proper information.    “No salt!”   Does that mean no sodium, no chlorides or both?   Why?   If the no-salt is due to wetlands, then using UREA or Potassium acetate might be the worst thing you could put down as it could have a far greater adverse impact than salt might have.   Stating  what you can’t use is only half of the challenge, the other half is what you CAN use to fight snow and ice.

A comment about LEEDS certifications and deicers:  Many property owners are seeking to obtain LEEDS certification.   Recently, LEEDS has recognized that magnesium chloride hexahydrate is low chlorides and highly effective and they recommend its use for buildings though they have no certification nor clear statement on this.   Green Seal is an organization that certifies various materials and products for their environmental fitness based on the chemistry.   There is no Green Seal standard for ice melters.

Understand that when it comes to evaluating deicers environmentally, it is still the wild west with the standards and laws changing from one town to the next.   We have been trying to start an independent deicer industry institute to then select an impartial lab who would perform testing and certify each product to a standard and certify the ingredients.   This must be done to stop the lies in labeling that are so pervasive in this market today.    Imagine putting a food product on a shelf with no list of ingredients?   Consumers would scream the day it hit the shelves but somehow, we have allowed the packaged deicer world to evolve under a cloak of deception in labels.    That is unacceptable and we must have transparency in the industry to clean up Dodge, and help the users to understand that this is nothing more than middle school science.

Demand a full disclosure of ingredients by percentage from any material you are considering so you know what you are putting into your environment.    We’ve had more than a few times when someone said they are using “Enviro-this” or “Eco-that” deicers because they can’t use salt, only to learn that the products they are buying are over 95% salt and they accomplished nothing but over-paying for salt.

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