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De-icing driveways and walkways sustainably during Milwaukee winters

Keeping driveways and walkways clear from snow and ice can be difficult during Milwaukee winters especially when temperatures can dip below freezing for weeks at a time. De-icers, rock salt being the most common, are often used to melt ice and snow, but it is important to consider the environmental impact. They can irritate paws on pets and wildlife, erode landscapes, and contaminate water resources. Even when exercising the best of intentions and spending the extra money on de-icers advertising they are safer and more eco-friendly, the claims are based on high conflicting and often skewed research studies. With a little planning, the following sustainable methods will keep driveways and walkways clear and safe for travel during the winter.

Shoveling snow by hand is the most sustainable method
Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images
  1. Invest in a good, ergonomic snow shovel. This requires no chemicals, just time and muscle. MyFitnessPal has a calorie burn calculator for shoveling snow. For example, a person weighing 150 pounds shoveling snow for 20 minutes will burn 121 calories. If there are health restrictions, consider involving healthier family members or hiring someone in the neighborhood. If a snow blower is downright more practical, then consider one with a hybrid motor or electric power.
  2. Use de-icers with the purpose of breaking up ice just enough to use a snow shovel to do the rest of the work, and use them sparingly. Focus on just the areas where ice has built up to the point where it is unsafe for people, animals, and vehicles to traverse. The effectiveness of a de-icer is ultimately a matter of temperature, chemical makeup, and timing. Be wary of de-icers making bold claims on their packaging that are safe for the environment and/or pets. All de-icers contain some level of chemicals in order to be effective; and most contain varying level of chloride which does not break down. Urea, a primary component found in fertilizers, based de-icers are also sold but less effective melting snow than salt compounds. The high nitrogen content in de-icers with urea deprive waterways of needed oxygen by fish and aquatic life making them not as much of a sustainable option as they initially appear. When selecting a de-icer; therefore, read the ingredients and not the claims.
  3. Employ sustainable methods that help with traction. Once an area has been shoveled, there are many environmentally friendly materials that can be applied to help improve traction. Bird seed is good for traction, is biodegradable, and will be eaten by the birds. Kitty litter, cedar chips, sawdust, gravel, and wood ashes are also good alternatives. Remember to use just enough to help with traction. Sand also is also helpful, but it needs to be swept up as snow and ice melt in order to prevent damage to landscapes and clogging stormwater drains.
  4. Let Mother Nature do her work. Watch the weather forecast. Snow and ice will melt from driveways and walkways that are receive direct sunlight. When direct sunlight makes contact with a darker surface, like asphalt on a driveway, it absorbs the sun’s rays causing the snow and ice to melt.

Researchers are constantly looking for more sustainable methods to remove ice and snow. Sugar beet juice is growing in popularity as a de-icer because of its effectiveness at lower temperatures. Milwaukee recently made national headlines when citing cheese brine as a potentially sustainable de-icing alternative. Regardless of what sustainable de-icing products may eventually become available to everyday consumers, breaking out a snow shovel is still the most sustainable alternative.

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