Q What can I use on an icy walkway besides salt?
A No doubt this winter is a little unpredictable, calling for a shovel one day and a raincoat and shorts the next. But any Canadian knows snow, ice and sleet can hit any time, and it's good to be prepared with a bag of whatever it takes to keep your mail carrier from slipping and suing you.
Of course, if nature had a lawyer, she might file a class-action suit on behalf of all the plants and waterways harmed by most of the stuff on the market. While it's not like you're pouring battery acid on your driveway, it ain't good. You probably already know that basic rock salt (sodium chloride) isn't great for your grass and flower beds (never mind the trees around snow dumps like the Don Valley), but did you know salt can cause heavy metals like lead to leach to your soil's surface and into groundwater? And when it washes into our storm sewers and overflows into lakes and streams, we're talking long-term damage to aquatic life.
Ask at any hardware store if they have eco-friendly salt-alternatives and they'll point you to calcium chloride. The stuff will cut through ice at much lower temps than regular salt, but it stresses the environment in a lot of the same ways. What makes it earth-conscious is that you have to use way less of it than other types - 3 ounces per square yard versus 8 of the other stuff.
Magic Salt is also more efficient than regular salt (even though it's basically rock salt coated in a syrupy by-product of the booze biz) and much less damaging to vegetation and concrete. It kind of smells like molasses, and it's biodegradable and water-soluable ($5.99/11.4 kilos at Canadian Tire).
Other experts swear by calcium magnesium acetate. It's a non-corrosive, biodegradable de-icer that's generally petroleum-derived but can be made from corn, whey or wheat. Unlike straight-up salt, calcium and magnesium actually improve soil quality, and acetate is biodegradable. The thing is, it doesn't really melt ice so much as turn into into a porridge, so you still have to shovel it away. But that's what you should be doing with all de-icers: use just enough to loosen the ice up, then shovel. We pile way too much of the stuff on our walkways, hoping we won't have to do any manual labour (calcium magnesium acetate is available in bulk at Grassroots on Bloor or Danforth for $1.99/kilo or $34.99 for a 22.7-kilo bag).
Paw Thaw (available at pet stores like Global Pets) is a purportedly critter- and vegetation-friendly blend of calcium magnesium acetate and "fertilizer-grade ingredients." Too bad the manufacturer won't tell us exactly what those ingredients are. But two commonly used fertilizer/de-icers (potassium chloride and urea) can actually burn grass if you use too much. Urea can also release toxic ammonia and excess nitrates into groundwater.
As for homemade solutions like kitty litter and ash, well, neither does anything to melt ice. They just provide a little extra traction. Plus, neither is particularly great for the earth, your plants or our waterways.
Some municipalities use sand on roads, but again, it does nothing to melt ice and can actually clog sewer systems. Plus, when crushed by car tires, the particles become fine enough to take flight, polluting the air and irritating asthma sufferers.
Sorry to say this, but the wisest, most conscientious option is also the most labour-intensive. That's right, good old-fashioned shovelling. Get yourself an ergonomic shovel if you have back trouble, and a flat hoe to break up icy patches. Bend at the knees, not the waist - you know the drill. If you must, use a little de-icer, and shovel your snow toward the road, not your flower beds and bushes.
If you've got wads of cash lying around and nothing better to do with it, you can always install a heated (solar-powered) driveway to keep your pavement warm and ice-free. But whatever you do, don't resort to snow blowers. They're powered by dirty two-stroke gas- and oil-powered engines or by electricity, and the latter sort don't work well on heavy, wet snow or more than 4 inches of the light stuff. If you can't shovel, hire your neighbour's kid to do the work.
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