How to Clear Snow & Ice Without Harming the Environment

enviro girlLet’s talk about clearing snow first–when Enviro-Girl lived in town, she marveled at the gigantic snow blowers her neighbors employed to clear 20-40 feet of sidewalk and a short driveway to the street. Shoveling is fantastic exercise–guaranteeing sweat and increased heart rate within ten minutes–and it’s the friendliest way to move the snow aside.  (Take a moment to appreciate the irony of someone using a snowblower to clear their driveway before they drive to the gym to exercise…doesn’t make much sense, does it?)  The trick to making shoveling a reasonable task is using the correct tool–a shovel appropriate for your build and height–and attacking the snow in manageable bits.  If 6 or more inches are expected to fall, it’s smartest to shovel two to three times so you’re only clearing a few inches at a time.  This helps your back and makes the whole job easier.  If you can’t do this, only clear what’s necessary in the first round and clear the rest later.  A 2-foot wide path is adequate for mail carriers and pedestrians, and you might consider only clearing a path to one entrance of your house and let the other access point alone.

If you’re inclined to remove snow using industrial-strength machinery like Enviro-Girl’s husband, remember that bigger isn’t always better.  A plow attached to an ATV uses less fuel and makes less noise than his 6.5 hp snow blowing machine.  (Enviro-Girl thinks her hubby is overcompensating every time he buys equipment with engines…you should see his chainsaw.)  An electric snowblower (Toro makes one that runs about $299) uses less energy, makes less noise, and gives off  no emissions in stark contrast to its gas-powered counterparts–so if you must blow snow, electric is definitely the way to go.  Enviro Girl would argue that MOST of the time, a shovel and broom are sufficient tools for clearing away snow.

snowBut snow’s only part of the problem in the winter.  Ice simply must be dealt with and there are a couple of methods–first, you can chip it away, potentially damaging your concrete/black top beneath.  Second, you can employ other substances to gain traction on the ice until it melts naturally–sand, cat litter, bird seed, ashes and fertilizer are good choices.  These things won’t melt your ice, but they’ll help you travel over it safely until the sunshine does it’s part.  (Enviro-Girl is going to try used coffee grounds next time–but she has a strict rule about no shoes or boots in the house!)  A third option is melting the ice.  Some places install heated walkways and driveways–radiant heat systems that run hot water pipes below the brick or concrete.  These still use a lot of energy.

Unfortunately, most people turn to salt the second they spot ice on the road or sidewalk.  Rock salt melts ice and is fairly inexpensive, but it’s really tough on plant life and when it drains away through storm sewers it can mess up ecosystems, killing fish, plant life and other creatures.  Also, salt doesn’t disappear in the soil, it remains there, making the soil less productive for growing anything.  If you have invested in your garden and yard, the last thing you want to do is dump salt on it.  Road salt also leeches into drinking water supplies and harms pets.  Salt is also corrosive on cars, skin, and road surfaces. Recent research suggests using Calcium Chloride to be the safest alternative for melting ice–you can read more of Iowa State University’s report here.   The problem is, it’s three times as costly as rock salt and can still cause skin irritation.

This particular winter has created a shortage of road salt in many parts of America and many municipalities are turning to other beet juice, brine, molasses and a volcanic rock to clear ice from roads.  These alternatives are safer than salt, and hopefully this winter’s shortage and the sheer expense of road salt will encourage more road crews to consider different solutions.

At the end of all her research, Enviro-Girl plans to use sand to gain traction on the ice, chip away at it with her handy chipping tool (a great work out!) and pray for warmer temps soon.  She’s also writing to her county representatives to applaud their liberal use of sand instead of salt to manage roadways this winter.

One  more thing Enviro-Girl learned about this topic:  if you let an ice storm fall on a cleared driveway, you have a skating rink that is impossible to clear.  If you let an ice storm fall on a snowy driveway, you can shovel it off pretty easily.  In this case, a little laziness paid off.


2 thoughts on “How to Clear Snow & Ice Without Harming the Environment

  1. All true! I don’t fuss with my husband’s snowblower because I’ve been physically unable to shovel for a few years. He’s very good about only using it when he feels he “must”, so I’ll let that one go. Litter is my go-to for traction, and salt is a last resort. I do laugh (silently) at the neighbor men when they seem to compete to clear more and more sidewalk.

  2. I’m lucky to have teenage sons when it comes to shoveling the driveway. I actually enjoy doing it myself when not dealing with a physical ailment. When we get more than a few inches overnight, , the neighbor across the street has a large snowblower which she can no longer handle; in exchange for my husband clearing off her driveway and front walk, he borrows it to do ours as well.
    Most of our larger tools are electric — I love having a quiet lawnmower!

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