While the City of Calgary is expanding its use of beet juice to de-ice slippery streets, its use is by no means widespread due to infrastructure costs.

Initially sprayed on some streets in the downtown core, the city’s unconventional and eco-friendly weapon against icy road conditions has now spread to most streets in the Beltline this year.

The expanded pilot project now features the addition of new tanks that carry up to 40,000 litres of beet brine to the city’s streets.

City of Calgary on their beet brine initiative. Produced by the City of Calgary.

“Our first priority is moving citizens safely through the city. We’re always looking for ways to innovate and we’re always conscious of … the impact [on] the environment,” says Chris McGeachy, communications advisor for the City of Calgary.

The natural alternative, Beet 55, is a mixture of sugar beet molasses with a recommended 10 to 35 per cent blend of salt brine and other chlorides, says McGeachy.

Created by Lugr Enterprises, the product reduces the corrosive properties of salt by 75 per cent, as well as minimizes harm to the environment. It’s also cheaper.

McGeachy adds that the city can also expect a markdown in costs as “beet brine comprises less than one percent” of the $39.2-million budget Calgary’s invested in snow maintenance.

But spraying beet brine on all city streets comes with challenges.

Why beet brine isn’t for everyone

Despite the benefits raked from a successful two-year pilot project, not everyone can use Beet 55.

Shane Williams, grounds manager at Mount Royal University, says that the use of beet juice isn’t feasible for the school at this time because the school doesn’t have the infrastructure nor the equipment.

news beetjuice copy copyShane Williams, grounds manager at Mount Royal University says budget limitations put a damper on eco-friendly initiatives. Photo credit: Brian Cortez.
“We’re still not at that stage,” says Williams.

He adds that on top of storage space, the school would also have to consider the capital costs of purchasing sprayer units.

For now, the university’s main line of defense for snow on campus parking lots and roads is pickle mix, a blend of gravel with a lower concentration of salt brine.

Both pickle mix and beet brine have the effect of lowering the freezing point of ice which influences the melting rate.

For sidewalks on campus, Williams says the university turns to JetBlue and Ecotraction, two de-icers that minimize the use of salt or chloride.

“It’s always tough, you always wanna try new stuff, you always wanna be environmentally friendly but [you] also want to have stuff that works — it’s a tough balancing act,” says Williams.

Alberta not part of Beet 55 production

Alberta is also not equipped to produce Beet 55. The province has no facilities capable of processing Raffinate, a liquid by-product made from de-sugaring beet molasses which acts as the main ingredient for the de-icer.

“All of the Raffinate is currently imported from the United States so there is no beneficial impact to our sugar beet farmers here in the province,” says Alberta Sugar Beet Growers executive director, Melody Garner-Skiba.

She adds that they would like to develop the product and are exploring potential options on supplying Raffinate from Alberta farmers.

Bottomline: Beet de-icers better for environment

Despite the challenges of local production, Beet 55 beats road salt because it isn’t as toxic to trees. It has a longer shelf-life on the streets which means the amount of salt applied is significantly lower in a season.

“[Snow plows] salt the roads … and the salty snow gets washed up on the side so often, you see dying trees because they’re along the edge of the salty roads,” says Cathy Ryan, a geoscience professor at the University of Calgary.
A 2011 study in Public Works Management and Policy reports that the decreased use of salt-heavy de-icers lends well to animal welfare because the sodium and calcium chloride found in most traditional de-icers can irritate or be potentially harmful to many animals.

Ryan explains that the decline in salt concentration can help aquatic wildlife and the freshwater system to thrive, making for better water quality in the city.

“The river biome would respond more positively to [beet brine],” she says, noting that the community needs to find a balance between taking care of the environment and protecting Calgarians when driving conditions are dangerous.

Moving forward, the city will review its beet spraying initiative before deciding whether to expand the program.

“We’ll really have a better picture of [beet brine] once the season is over,” McGeachy says.

Editor: Sam Nar | snar@cjournal.ca

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