A(salt) On The Environment?

By Roman Bharati

As UCC continues with its transition to in-person learning, the snowy weather has added yet another challenge into the equation. The solution seems to be encapsulated in one word: salt. 

Indeed, UCC’s use of road salt, so far, has been extremely extensive, virtually covering all sidewalks and paths on the way to entering the building. However, other than crunchy sidewalks and salt-stained boots, why must one care about how much salt is used on our walkways?

Road salt is used in Ontario to de-ice sidewalks, roadways, and parking lots, as well as to increase safety during cold weather. However, it is frequently used in excess, converting freshwater to saltwater through the sewers and waterways. The salty water can contaminate groundwater sources, harm delicate species, and eventually destroy ecosystems. Spots in Ontario have gotten so salty that saltwater species have been spotted in freshwater waterways. Reports of saltwater blue crabs dwelling in Mimico Creek are only one worrisome example of the amount of sodium chloride contamination in Lake Ontario watersheds.

According to some studies, salinization of freshwater increases parasitism on the North Leopard Frog, an amphibian endemic to Ontario. Sodium chloride inhibits growth at the most critical life stage of salmon species, resulting in decreases in salmon population levels.

Salinization of freshwater causes death in tiny aquatic species such as freshwater shrimp, mussels, and insects in the worst-case scenario, according to other studies. These creatures are essential to freshwater environments because they feed bigger species such as fish and birds. When the population of tiny aquatic creatures declines as sodium chloride levels rise, the population of bigger aquatic species declines as well. This creates significant alterations in the food chain and harms the aquatic environment as a whole. In the long run, road salts create irreversible changes to the aquatic ecology, including massive biodiversity losses.

Notwithstanding these terrible consequences, some argue that if road salt application is a necessary part of our commute in big cities, why must we stop using it?

The answer does not lie in whether or not we should cease use of salt, but instead in the quantity of road salt spread on UCC’s campus. It is simply too much. 

Below are some photos of the campus students have captured on their way to classes:

Evidently, this quantity of road salt is more than adequate to melt the snow on one path. Considering that there are many more paths covered in salt like these, it truly puts into perspective the extremity of the situation. 

Importantly, Ontario’s Ministry of Transport recommends 20 grams of road salt per one square meter. This, of course, is far under the average use of road salt on a typical parking lot:

Source: Lake Ontario Waterkeeper

Compare this with a typical UCC sidewalk, and it will not be hard to comprehend the excessive nature of this road-salt application:

During the winter, the subject of road salts is discussed on a number of blogs and media channels. Local conservation bodies in Ontario, particularly the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, are conducting extensive study and work on salt management. Research is also being conducted to find alternatives to road salts, such as beet brine, which is now being used in Calgary. For now, however, using less salt will go a long way. 

Ultimately, as a privileged school, UCC must delegate much of its power and attention to this very dangerous and threatening over-salinization. After all, it is a crucial facet of our efforts to truly better the environment. Addressing this challenge will prove to be the next step in the college’s journey of sustainability.