Why no beets on the streets? Some places spray beet juice before snowstorms — but not Philadelphia

A decade ago, one city councilmember did make a push for it. (He’s now the mayor.)

Philadelphia does not use beet juice to help prevent icy roads — but Mayor Kenney once pushed for it

Philadelphia does not use beet juice to help prevent icy roads — but Mayor Kenney once pushed for it

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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When there’s heavy snow in the forecast, a flotilla of trucks get deployed to spray salt brine and spread those familiar white salt pellets all over city streets.

Classic “road salt” — which usually consists of chunks of sodium chloride, a bigger and less pure version of the stuff in your table shaker — isn’t great for the environment. So some jurisdictions have been shifting how they cut through the wintertime mess.

Back in 2014, a member of City Council suggested a modification for Philly. He proposed exploring a seemingly unconventional addition to the ice melt rotation: beet juice.

A mix that includes beet juice has become more common across the country over the past decade. But despite that environmentally-minded councilmember now being mayor, Philly never did adopt the practice of putting beets on the streets.

Hold on… beet juice?

Yes, beet juice.

Materials commonly used to curb iciness on roads in the wintertime include rock salt and salt brine. Spreading the brine on roadways reduces the amount of solid salt necessary to keep them ice-free, but it can also cause increased corrosion.

As concerns over the environmental ramifications of increased salt content in freshwater bodies mounted, some states and municipalities began to add beet juice to the mix.

The idea is that the particles in beet juice (or other organic additives, like beer waste or cheese brine) help salt stick to the road better and lower the freezing point of the ice.

An agency in New Jersey has tried the beet thing, and it’s particularly common in Midwestern states like Kansas and Missouri. (It’s not all sunshine and roses: people from areas with beet-juice-treated streets say the concoctions don’t smell that great.)

About eight years ago, then-Councilmember Jim Kenney floated the idea of using beet juice as a deicer in Philly. He made the suggestion as part of an effort to get Council’s Streets and Services Committee to hold hearings evaluating Philadelphia’s overall use of rock salt.

His idea came from conversations with dog owners who were frustrated with the health risks of their pets potentially licking off rock salt stuck to their paws after going for walks. Health risks to children and threats to the environment were also concerns cited by the now-mayor.

“We’ve discovered things like ‘beet juice’ and other things and other additives that cut the salt content, but still create the thermal necessary to melt the ice and snow,” Kenney said at the time.

But the city never actually tried it. Philly still doesn’t use it, according to Joy Huertas, deputy communications director for the mayor’s office.

“The question about beet juice gets brought up in City Council hearings occasionally,” Huertas said. The city is familiar with how it works, per her statement: “Beet juice can be used as an additive where you can put [it] into the brine to help it last longer on the street. It can be added to the salt so it starts to activate before it hits the street. As the salt dissolves, the [beet] product would remain on the street until it washes away.”

So why not use it?

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation — which uses around 329,000 gallons of brine and 102,000 tons of salt on roadways in Philadelphia and the collar counties during the winter — does not use beet juice on Philly area roadways either, according to PennDOT deputy communications director Brad Rudolph.

But PennDOT has explored the option before. The agency experimented with it as early as 2014, and in 2018, it conducted a field test of a few different deicers with researchers from Temple University, and a liquid deicing product called “Beet Heet” was one of them.

“At least one product using desugared sugar beet molasses (beet juice)” was approved for use following the study with Temple, PennDOT press secretary Alexis Campbell told Billy Penn.

The agency has used it in certain cases, but a number of factors typically lead counties to opt for other materials.

For one, it’s pricey. The product is manufactured, Campbell said, so it’s more expensive than typical salt brine (which PennDOT mixes itself). It also needs to be stored and handled separately from other products.

And the efficacy of the beet product is highest at very low temps, per Campbell, whereas salt brine “has a more universal use.”

Beet juice also comes with its own environmental considerations.

Hongbing Sun, a professor at Rider University who specializes in environmental health and hydrology, has studied the impact of rock salt in the Delaware River watershed. He expressed reservations about using beet juice as a salt brine additive in and around Philadelphia.

The organic material in beet juice can increase the biochemical oxygen demand of water as it decomposes, Sun told Billy Penn — a process that takes days to weeks in the wintertime. That could lead to algae blooms and worsened river water quality once the weather warms up.

Applying beet juice would probably not cause problems in rural farming areas, Sun noted, since it would get filtered by the soil during runoff and have the chance to decompose before it reaches a stream.

There’s also a chance that large amounts of undecomposed beet juice mixture could make the river taste like beets.

“Anything we put on the street might be picked up right in one of the water plants,” Sun wrote. “Anything new they add in the mixture on the street, they probably should consult the drinking water plant guys.”