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Milwaukee Says ‘Cheese’ to De-Icer

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

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Milwaukee Alderman Tony Zielinski is taking an admittedly cheesy approach to keeping his city streets clear this winter.

Following a resolution sponsored by Zielinski, the city’s Department of Public Works has cooked up a pilot program that will combine leftover cheese brine with conventional rock salt to de-ice a test section of the city’s 1,424 streets and 1,966 bridges this winter.

Milwaukee salt truck
Wikimedia Commons / Michael Pereckas

The City of Milwaukee, WI, used nearly 100,000 tons of rock salt in the winter of 2008. The city hopes that wetting the rock salt with a bio-based brine will reduce the cost and damage of salting.

If it works, say officials, de-icing may have a brine future in the winters of Wisconsin’s largest city.

Soaking up a Solution

“Cheese brine is more environmentally friendly than salt, and the program will give a functional use to what is normally just a waste product,” Zielinksi says on his website. “The use of cheese brine could also save money for the city in the long run.”

The salt-and-water brine solution is used to soak mozzarella, provolone and other varieties of cheese. Currently, once the cheese is ready, cheese makers in the nation’s largest cheese-producing state discard the brine as industrial wastewater.

Cheese in brine

Cheese brine is now discarded as industrial wastewater. A county highway department official dreamed up a better use for it and saved his agency $40,000 the first year.

Milwaukee’s plan is to use the cheese brine to wet the rock salt right before it is dumped on the street, Wanda Booker, the city’s sanitation services manager, told the Chicago Tribune.

Currently, the city’s 90 salt trucks mix liquid calcium chloride with the rock salt when temperatures drop below 24 degrees to make the salt more effective.

City officials say the brine-boosted recipe would help the city’s effort to reduce its use of rock salt, which can damage roads, vehicles and the environment over the long term.

Low-Salt Diet

In the winter of 2008, Milwaukee spread nearly 100,000 tons of rock salt on its 1,418 miles of roads, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Last year, the city used 43,339 tons of rock salt.

Cheese brine
Wikimedia Commons / Achim Hering

Rock salt washed into concrete can cause efflorescence that weakens the concrete over time.

The Department of Public Works studied the idea before agreeing to the pilot program and, in fact, the notion is not new.

What Moe Knows

Credit for the idea goes to Moe Norby, the technical support manager of the Polk County (WI) Highway Department, who dreamed up the plan in 2008.

“We don’t have our own saltmaker up here, and buying one is really expensive,” Norby told Bloomberg Businessweek.

“I started trying to think of other ways to salt the road, and I thought, ‘Dairy farms soak their cheese in brine. Brine is salty. Maybe we can use that.’

“We started testing the brine in late 2008, and it worked perfectly,” Norby said. “We saved $40,000 the first year. Since then, I’d estimate that our costs are down 30 percent because of it.”

That brine is donated to Polk County. Milwaukee will have to find its own source and obtain appropriate permits before beginning its trial, reports said.

The Smell of Success

Still, the cheese has yet to prove its worth, and other kitchen de-icers have not worked so well. A molasses-type product trialed from 1999 to 2001 proved too smelly, stuck to people’s shoes, and got tracked all over the city. And a beet-juice-enhanced rock salt tried in 2009 turned to mush in the city’s trucks.

Cheese makers, not surprisingly, give the idea a curdy thumbs-up.

"It's a great recycling idea," John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association Umhoefer, told the Chicago Tribune. "What better to put on your roads than the scent of mozzarella?"

Yes, officials say, the brine does have the smell like cheese. But the brine-treated roads don’t.


Tagged categories: Chlorides; Maintenance programs; Project Management; Roads/Highways; Salt exposure; Transportation

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