Snowplows and salting trucks were deployed for the first time in many parts of the country this weekend in response to the royal mess-maker known as Winter Storm Dion, and our attention once again turns to that necessary, life-saving evil known as sodium chloride — street name: rock salt — which continues to serve as road de-icer de rigueur despite its detrimental impact on the environment.
In recent years, some municipalities have experimented with more eco-friendly rock salt alternatives or additions with various degrees of success: sand or gravel (generally used in combination with rock salt), beet juice, molasses, garlic salt, and various forms of organic and inorganic salts and compounds that tend to be gentler on Mother Nature but more expensive and less bountiful in supply than traditional, highly corrosive rock salt.
And then there’s Milwaukee, the most populous city in America’s most fromage-tastic state. Inspired by a similar, successful initiative in rural Polk County that's been going strong for several years now, street crews will be spreading cheese brine along its slippery, ice-slicked avenues this winter. So while Milwaukee, which itself is more known for beer than Baby Swiss, may not be first place in Wisconsin to turn to dairy waste for its de-icing needs, it's certainly the largest.
While using brine and naturally occurring saltwater to treat ice-covered roadways isn’t a novel concept, big props to Milwaukee for making good use out of a difficult-to-dispose type of organic waste that’s found in great abundance across the state of Wisconsin: salty, leftover cheese-making juice. Just like the deep-fried city of London with its wealth of sewer-clogging cooking grease deposits, sometimes you just have to get creative and work with the type of waste byproduct that defines you and turn it into something beneficial. During an official unveiling of the city's cheese brine salt trucks last week, Milwaukee's cheesehead-in-chief, Mayor Tom Barrett, likened the act to “thinking outside of the cheese box."
To be clear, Milwaukee won’t completely replace rock salt for thousands of gallons of salty mozzarella juice. The pilot project, which will first be tested in the historic Bay View neighborhood before being potentially unrolled to other areas through the city, will involve a mixture of rock salt and slightly odiferous (more on that in a bit) cheese brine. The brine will be sourced from a production plant owned by F&A Dairy — “The finest pizza and deli cheese for over 4 years!” — located in the tiny Polk County village of Dresser.
The scheme is a win-win for both the city and F&A Dairy, and of course it will also benefit the environment and motorists. The former will save in rock salt costs while the latter, which transforms a staggering 900,000 pounds of milk into provolone and mozzarella every day, will conserve cash in the brine disposal department. During the first year that Polk County experimented with cheese brine as a pre-wetting agent, it saved $40,000 in rock salt costs while F&A Dairy saved in the ballpark of $30,000 in money that would have been spent trucking the brine off to wastewater treatment plants. In addition to being a more effective de-icer than standard brine due to a lower freezing point, the cheesy liquid prevents rock salt from bouncing and scattering off roadways, which means less has to be used and less of it ends up entering waterways and the surrounding environment.
Milwaukee has invested $1,474 in the pilot program with costs going toward transportation and distribution of the brine (it's a five-hour drive in good weather from F&A HQ in Polk County, located in the far northwest reaches of the state, to Milwaukee).
And about that smell. While the Milwaukee Department of Public Works notes that the cheese brine solution has a “distinctive odor,” Polk County highway worker Emil Norby, the gentleman who originally conceived of using cheese brine to treat ice-covered roads, explains that Milwaukee residents can expect to experience subtle, whey-tinged whiffs once the cheese brine is applied to streets. He tells Modern Farmer: “I don’t really mind it. Our roads smell like Wisconsin!”
Via [Modern Farmer], [WISN.com]
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