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Originally published December 23, 2013 at 9:06 PM | Page modified December 24, 2013 at 7:44 PM

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Wisconsin using cheese brine and salt to combat icy roads

Governments across the country have been experimenting with cheaper and environmentally friendly ways of thawing icy thoroughfares, and using the salty brine that flavors cheese, a method used in Chehalis, was only a matter of time in a state like Wisconsin.


The New York Times

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MILWAUKEE — In a state whose license plates advertise it as America’s Dairyland, where lawmakers once honored the bacterium in Monterey Jack as the state’s official microbe and where otherwise sober citizens wear foam cheesehead hats, road crews are trying to thaw freezing Wisconsin streets with a material that smells a little like mozzarella.

This month, Milwaukee began a pilot program to repurpose cheese brine for use in keeping city roads from freezing, mixing the dairy waste with traditional rock salt as a way to trim costs and ease pollution.

“You want to use provolone or mozzarella,” said Jeffrey Tews, the fleet operations manager for the public works department, which has thrice spread the cheesy substance in Bay View, a neighborhood on Milwaukee’s south side. “Those have the best salt content. You have to do practically nothing to it.”

Local governments across the country have been experimenting with cheaper and environmentally friendly ways of thawing icy thoroughfares, trying everything from sugar beet juice to discarded brewery grain in an attempt to limit the use of road salt, which can spread too thin, wash away and pollute waterways.

Snow-science experts say an attempt to recycle the salty brine that flavors cheese was only a matter of time, particularly in a state like Wisconsin.

“We’re just trying to make every possible use of cheese,” said Alderman Tony Zielinski, adding that local governments in other states have called him to learn more about the program.

But in this dense urban setting, Milwaukee officials are reviewing a list of potential problems that come with cheese-coated streets: Would a faint odor of cheese bother residents? Would it attract rodents? Would the benefits of cheese brine, said to freeze at a lower temperature than regular salt brine, be enough to justify the hauling and storing requirements?

If at first it sounded like a joke, the reality of tapping the wellspring of dairy byproduct has become a serious budget-slimming conversation. The state produced 2.7 billion pounds of cheese in 2012, the most of any in the nation. With it comes a surplus of brine that is shipped to local waste-treatment plants. (Cheese brine is permitted on roads if limited to 8 gallons per ton of rock salt used.)

Chuck Engdahl, the wastewater manager at F & A Dairy Products in northwestern Wisconsin, said his company now donates most of the excess liquid to a handful of municipalities willing to cart it away, including Milwaukee, saving about $20,000 a year in hauling costs.

And Polk County, also near the Minnesota border, estimates that it saved $40,000 in rock-salt expenses in 2009, the year it started using cheese brine on its highways.

“If you put dry salt on a roadway, you typically lose 30 percent to bounce and traffic,” said Emil Norby, who works for Polk County and was the first in Wisconsin to come up with the cheese-brine idea to help the salt stick. The county has expanded its use of the material every year since, spreading more than 40,000 gallons on its highways last year.

Chehalis, in Washington state, also uses an anti-icing mixture that includes cheese brine. The State Department of Transportation road crews has used a de-icing concoction made from Darigold’s cheese-making wastewater, some “de-sugared” molasses to offset the corrosive nature of the salt — and also helps the brine stick to the road surface longer.

Looking for rock-salt alternatives, Milwaukee, a city that averages about 50 inches of snow each winter, tested a “molasses-type product” more than a decade ago, but scrapped the idea after residents complained that it left shoe prints in their homes. In 2009, the city sprayed its rock salt with sugar beet juice to make it last longer, but the mixture clogged trucks and was dropped.

Last year, with only 28 inches of snow, Milwaukee used 44,000 tons of salt and spent almost $6.5 million on snow and ice management. The year before, the costs surpassed $10 million.

It is, perhaps, too soon to tell how much cheese brine would alter that outlay. The pilot program will cost Milwaukee about $6,500 — mostly for transporting and storing a small batch of brine. A full report is expected this spring.



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