Beet juice on roads – an alternative deicer?

  • Date: June 3, 2022

Ice and snow can make driving in winter more like an extreme sport than a transport option. Local transport authorities primarily use sodium chloride, or salt, as a deicer option. Despite being cheap and effective, heavy use of salt negatively impacts the environment and can damage cars too.

Beet juice deicer, on the other hand, provides a more ecofriendly solution. Although containing some salt, it is a much lower concentration. It even lasts longer on the road.

Why is salt deicer bad for the environment?

Salt deicer is the most widely used deicer. In the USA alone, approximately 48 billion pounds are spread every single year. Being used in this quantity, it is important that it has as little negative impact on the environment as possible. But does it?  

Soil erosion

Excess levels of chloride have been found in soil up to 10 meters from the roadside. Chloride accumulates over a long period of time can negatively affect permeability, fertility, pH and density.  Ultimately resulting in plant growth and erosion control issues.

Roadside plants damage

Salt is sprayed with little regard for close-by plants and, unfortunately, those that live by the roadside can be severely affected. Stunted growth and browning leaves can be signs that they have absorbed road salt. However, this is species dependent – avoiding planting salt-sensitive plants by the roadside can limit these effects.

Low oxygen aquatic environments

Road salt that finds it way into water bodies can cause a depletion in oxygen. The salt tends to sink to the bottom, causing a thick layer to form. This layer inhibits gas exchange which can result in a low oxygen environment. Lack of oxygen can be damaging to the plants and animals that live there.

High chloride levels in aquatic ecosystems

Road salt has been blamed for rising chloride levels in USA urban streams. Approximately 40% have chloride levels deemed to be unsafe for aquatic life. Chloride is a toxic to aquatic species and those living in freshwater environments only need to be subjected to a low level to cause them harm. High levels can cause a whole host of physiological problems – from growth and reproduction to osmoregulation issues.

Wastewater salts used

The salty wastewater of oil and gas production is used in some states. This is highly effective as a road deicer – and cheap, sometimes even free. However, it has been found that wastewater brine contains several toxic chemicals including ammonium, iodide and bromide. It can even contain radium and barium – radioactive materials! Even small amounts of these chemicals can have a significant effect on local wildlife.

Increased roadkill

Some local animals are unfortunately attracted to the salt on the roads. Moose and deer in particular just can’t resist the salty taste on the road! This inevitably leads to an increased number of accidents involving these animals on snowy winters days.

Benefits of beet juice on roads

Cuts down on salt needed

Salt works by lowering the freezing point of water. The salt molecules mix with the water molecules so they are unable to form a crystal structure – ice. The sugar molecules of the beet solution disrupt the ice formation in a similar way.

Beet juice also has the added advantage of being sticky. This make the salt-beet solution stick to the roads for longer.  Spraying is needed less often. Also, the chance of the salt affecting nearby plants is reduced due to it being more stuck to the road.

Re-using a waste product

Waste products in beet processing get re-used. This is particularly useful in areas with a large sugar beet industry such as the River Valley region of Minnesota and North Dakota where the industry is thriving.  

Less corrosive

It also does not corrode vehicles like the more common salt deicer. In fact, beet juice has anti-corrosive properties. Vehicles are less likely to rust as well as roads, bridges and pipes.  This avoids a whole host of environmental and health issues.

Does beet juice deicer have downsides?

Unpleasant odor

Beet juice-based deicer, as you may expect, has a distinctive brown/red color. Although this does not stain the road permanently, it is visible on application. The smell is also off-putting to some residents having been likened to soy sauce, stale coffee and even caramel. Not the worst downside in the world – but still, not perfect! Some areas have used the juice from white beets to avoid this staining but most have just embraced the temporary road color change for the good of the local wildlife!

Environmental impacts of beet deicer

Due to the sugar present, when it finds its way into local waterways it can attract an array of organisms. These can use up vital oxygen that would otherwise have been available for the aquatic life.

A recent study also showed that beet juice deicer caused physiological stress to immature mayflies. The mayflies exposed to the beet deicer were at risk of their organ function being altered. Their gills also excreting salt. This is the opposite to how they normally function.

At first, the researchers thought that this was due to high potassium levels in the deicer. However, this was shown not to be the case – meaning other factors are at play here.  Beet juice deice needs further research to fully assess its green credentials.

The bottom line

Beet juice deicer, although not perfect, seems to be significantly less harmful for the environment than standard salt deicer. Salt causes more corrosion, harms roadside plants and aquatic species. There must be a balance between keeping the public safe on the roads and having as little environmental impact as possible. Although further research is necessary to evaluate the full impact, beet juice deicer seems to achieve this balance more effectively than salt.