Want some cheese to go with that snow?

Clearing the way

Think, for a moment, about your hometown. Perhaps ice and snow cover your roads in the winter. How would cops and firefighters respond to your home in an emergency if the roads were not clear? When was the last time you thought about how city crews actually go about clearing the roads in winter? Like many of us, do you take it for granted that streets will be plowed and ready to go when you wake up in the morning? There is more to snow removal than one would think, and the future may look a bit cheesy.

Boston saw record amounts of snowfall this past winter. According to the Boston Globe, they received the highest levels since 1872. Here is how the basic snow removal process works: Snowplows and tractors push snow off the road. Road clear. Done.

Is that all there is to it? No, not really. At first, you may think that snow problems are simple. Nothing exciting to see here. Upon further examination, however, the method and future of snow mitigation and processing becomes quite interesting.

Snowfall can bring cities to a crawl, affecting the economy, transportation, and hindering emergency services ability to get to residents in need. Cost is another factor. Boston’s total cost for snow removal this year was close to $50 million. City crews hauled about 30,000 truckloads of snow, totaling over half-a-million cubic yards. For comparison, that’s almost enough snow to fill Boston’s Fenway Park three times. There was so much snow that truckload after truckload had to be hauled off the streets to be dumped in what are commonly referred to as snow farms.

Snow farms are empty plots of land that are used for temporary snow storage. The dumped snow essentially sits there until it melts away or until crews use industrial snow melting machines to do the job. Another option considered by city crews in Boston was dumping the snow into the Boston harbor. This suggestion came with criticism and concerns. Concerns were raised chiefly over the salt content since roads are salted ahead of storms and throughout the events. There was an estimated 113,000 tons of salt used this past winter in Boston alone, so artificially introducing this salt into the harbor could have caused environmental problems. The salt may be harmful for harbor wildlife, in addition to being corrosive and tough on infrastructure like metal and concrete in area bridges. Given all the attention that infrastructure restoration is receiving today, preventing further damage is certainly something to think about.

Beeting the problem

Since much of the salt used on roads makes its way to waterways anyway, why continue to use salt? Is this a case of the proverbial “we have always done it this way” mentality? Salt has been used on roads since the early 1940’s. Credit goes to New Hampshire for adopting the first policy for using salt on roadways. The basic science behind it is simple. Salt works as a chemical mechanism to keep roads from icing over by lowering the freezing point of water. If ice does not stick directly to the roadway, it makes it easier for snowplows to move through the snow and ice covering the roads. The brine formed by salt application forms a thin, protective layer between the snow ice and the road itself.

Beet juice is being used as a de-icing brine solution. It’s a sticky mixture, so it stays on roads.

There are some alternatives to applying salt directly. Some cities are using brine mixtures. Brine is a liquid form of de-icer with a reduced salt content and has the added benefit of being less costly than using salt alone.

One brine mixture that has been found to be effective is based on beet juice, which has been tested in places like Missouri, Ohio, and Canada. The beet juice brine becomes slightly sticky, which is an advantage to road crews because it does not run off the road as easily as a water-based brine. The beet juice brine remains in place longer, and less time is spent re-spreading the solution on roadways which lowers labor costs.

Cheese juice

In some places, brine is available as a manufacturing by-product. Milwaukee, Wisconsin has an abundance of brine available from an unusual source. Wisconsin is widely known for being a major producer of cheese in the US. Close to three billion pounds of cheese is made in Wisconsin every year. Rather than waste brine which would otherwise drain into city sewer systems, the leftover cheese brine is being used on roadways to prevent icing and to facilitate snow-plowing. It is reported to work well, and costs are lessened for both the city and manufacturers. Rather than the city needing to buy salt and cheese manufacturers having to pay to dispose of their brine, the new use is a win-win for both parties. This relationship lowers purchasing costs for the city, and is becoming a source of income for cheese makers.

There are drawbacks to using cheese brine, of course. Some reports say the city streets smell of cheese. But, please don’t ask FEMA to declare a cheese emergency if you catch a whiff.

Top image credit: www.modernfarmer.com

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