“We’ve become salt-addicted over the last 50 years, and we’re now discovering that there are all these hidden costs,” says Xianming Shi, an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington. He estimates the US now spends $2.3 billion each year to remove snow and ice from highways. It then costs another $5 billion to pay for the resulting damage. And that’s not even counting the cost of salting cities or rural roads.
So, in recent years, some officials have been looking for ways to reduce their reliance on road salt. There are tricks like pre-salting roads before storms hit — which prevents ice from sticking in the first place. There are exotic remedies like adding beet juice to salt, which can lessen the ecological harm. Engineers like Shi have been working on more futuristic technologies — like “smart” snowplows that are thriftier with salt, or ice-free pavement.