For an updated article on Environmentally Friendly Ice Melt, click here.

With millions of dollars invested in roadways and parking lots, it’s a shame when winter comes that people use an ice melter that is inexpensive in the short term, but over time, will leave damage that will cost thousands of dollars to repair and also have a negative impact on the environment. In addition, facility managers must not only consider the exterior of buildings but also the entrances and walkways with floor coverings that may be impacted from tracked in residual chemicals on occupants’ shoes.

To minimize damage and create safer environments, manufacturers have developed environmentally friendly, or green, ice melt blends.

“People value products and practices that maximize safety and reduce the risk to the environment. People also highly value products that perform as promised,” says Greg MacDonnell, global marketing manager, calcium chloride for Occidental Chemical Corp., Ludington, Mich. “Proven performance includes not only melting ice quickly and consistently in cold temperatures to provide safe conditions, but also avoiding downside impact to walks and plantings, as well.” 

What Is Green?

Most end users purchase rock salt, also known as sodium chloride, because it is inexpensive and effective for melting ice. However, rock salt causes almost as many problems in the aftermath as it takes care of because it’s corrosive to metals, automobiles, erodes roadways and destroys vegetation.

“The components that go into green are so expensive, so unfortunately, the reason so many people go down to using plain rock salt is that it is the cheapest product you can find,” says Kevin Wice, president of Xynyth Manufacturing Corp., British Columbia, Canada.

But more building owners and facility managers that buy into the green cleaning concept want environmentally friendly options for all products used in their building, from the glass cleaner to the ice melt, regardless of cost. This demand for green ice melt has been growing for the past five to 10 years as products have become more effective, says Matt Berdy, industrial product sales manager for K+S North America Corp., which acts as an agent for Dead Sea Works, Ltd., New York.

“Technology keeps improving, people are coming out with more and more blends to meet the demands,” he says.

When it comes to greening ice melt, safer, and more effective alternatives to using rock salt include magnesium chloride and calcium chloride, both natural salts, but less harmful to the environment.

“Both magnesium chloride and calcium chloride release fewer chlorides into the environment than sodium chloride, offering a positive environmental impact,” says Douglas N. Excell, business director for Overland Park, Kan.-based North American Salt, a subsidiary of Compass Minerals International. “[They] won’t stain carpets or leave residue on floors, when used as directed, which reduces the use of chemicals to clean these areas.”

Another green option is potassium chloride. Potassium is a nutrient for plant life, so once ice melts (assuming the product was used correctly), potassium-based blends can actually benefit surrounding plants and grass, says Brent Crawford, president, Core Products, Canton, Texas.

Environmentally friendly ice melts not only fertilize vegetation, but they won’t damage sidewalks or harm people’s pets either, says Niles Hysell, marketing product manager for Morton Ice Melting Solutions, Chicago.

Ice melt can also be considered green if the product melts ice for longer periods of time, so less product is needed. If ice melt is overused, it can be very harmful to vegetation, says MacDonnell.

It Says It’s Green, But…

Distributors shouldn’t be too quick to jump on the green ice melt bandwagon. There are some problems to consider. One area of concern is what green means exactly. People have thrown the word around and it has become so vague that it’s easy for any manufacturer to say a product is green, based on whatever criteria they themselves choose to apply to it.

“Currently there is no product that can definitively claim the green mantle in this industry,” says Michael Ossian of Ossian Inc., Davenport, Iowa. “The problem is there are several that try to make the claim, and they try because there is significant market to be gained if they are able to convince people that their product is ‘green.’”

There is no third-party green certification for ice melt, so the potential for greenwashing is very high, says Excell.

“Simply injecting a green colored dye into a product only creates the illusion of being more environmentally friendly when, in reality, the product offers no additional benefits,” he says.

Ossian agrees, saying there is more misinformation on the subject than there are products.

For example, manufacturers may choose to label their salt product as “all-natural,” which could be true, but that doesn’t mean it won’t kill grass and plants, says Ossian. Or they can choose to make the claim that their product “will not harm vegetation when used according to label instructions,” and the instructions say not to get it on their vegetation.

Distributors will need to do their homework and research each blend of ice melt to know exactly what they are purchasing to ensure it’s safe for the environment.

“One of the most important things is for the distributor to be wary of the contents they are buying,” says Wice. “A real challenge is that there’s no standard regulation for how ice melters advertise or present their products and they can be misleading with words like ‘safer’ instead of ‘safe.’”

Proper Use

Being truly green goes beyond what’s in the product. Proper use of ice melt will help keep the environment and end users safe.

Green ice melt blends should work in temperatures as low as minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Some may even go lower than that, but work more slowly, says Hysell.

In order to provide appropriate winter maintenance without harming the environment, end users must be sure they select an appropriate product for the weather conditions, says Robert H. George, vice president of industrial sales and marketing for International Salt, Clarks Summit, Pa.

“Different ice melting ingredients vary in speed and volume of melt, with performance also influenced by rate of application. For instance, in a blended product of magnesium chloride and sodium chloride, the hygroscopic magnesium chloride pulls moisture from the air for a fast brine-making start, complemented by sodium chloride’s extended melting time capacity,” says Bob O’Connell, packaged deicing marketing manager for Minneapolis-based Cargill Salt.

Some blends may not work in extreme cold. Applying a product that is ineffective is not safe for the environment, no matter how “green” manufacturers tout the product to be.

After determining the right blend, it’s also important that end users apply the product correctly and on the right surfaces, says George.

“All ice melt products should be used sparingly and according to the directions. With most green products, less is more, especially if they are considered to be concentrated,” adds Crawford.

Perhaps most important for applicators to remember is the best practice stated in many products’ instructions for use: Remove melted snow and ice from concrete surfaces as soon as possible to minimize potential for freeze-thaw scaling, says O’Connell. And of course, consult instructions for which surfaces to avoid.

Most of the green ice melt on the market today is safe if used as directed for concrete, around gardens, walkways, sidewalks, driveways and parking lots.

Manufacturers have answered the call for environmentally friendly ice melt blends. But as seen in other sectors of the cleaning industry, without third-party certifications, there is the potential for greenwashing. Distributors should ask their vendors plenty of questions about the product before they start promoting it as green.

Keith Loria is a freelance writer based in Larchmont, N.Y.