Warning: Using Kitty Litter and Salt to De-ice Could Be Harmful

Kitty litter and salt work in a pinch when you need to melt ice and snow. But they can actually do more harm than help. Get eco ways to de-ice your driveway.

A snowy road with a tire track that needs to be de-iced.

Oh boy, is winter weather ever upon us! From the Arctic blast of the Polar Vortex freezing half the U.S. population in January to the latest bout of winter storms pounding the South, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, North America is buried under mountains of snow and ice.

If you’re digging your way out of the deep freeze, you could’ve encountered this tip on our blog: use salt or kitty litter to melt ice and snow. While these household items do work in a pinch, in some instances, they can actually cause a number of problems.

Kitty litter can be slippery when wet

Do a little research and you’ll see that everyone from Consumer Reports to the Department of Transportation recommends keeping a bag of kitty litter in your car. Why? Because it can help your car gain traction if you get stuck in snow.

This works well if you’re out on the road, but using this method on your driveway can be problematic. According to Fresh Step®, cat litter can become slick when wet and difficult to remove from cement surfaces. Think about it: it’s really nothing more than fancy clay, which means that once snow melts, you’ll end up with gobs of gummy earth that could harden, stick, and become icy and dangerous.

Salt can damage plants and harm pets

Salt melts ice because it lowers the freezing point of water. In fact, it works so well and is so cost-effective that we use 22 million tons of it per year on roads nationwide.

But there’s a downside: it’s damaging to the environment when used commercially in high concentration. And if used on your property, it can have detrimental effects.

It can kill plants

When the Romans sacked Carthage centuries ago, they supposedly salted the earth so that nothing would grow. Whether or not that’s true is uncertain. What is certain, though, is salt’s toxicity to many plants.

After dissolving, sodium ions replace other nutrients in the soil that plants need. Salt also absorbs water, making it difficult for roots to get the necessary hydration.

It can hurt Rover’s paws and stomach

If you have pets, salt can irritate and burn their footpads. And if ingested — you know how Rover loves licking his paws — it can cause an upset stomach. Worse, if it’s eaten in large amounts, it can even be fatal. 

3 eco ways to de-ice your driveway

So what are your options? After all, it’s not like you can spend all winter indoors. At some point, you’ll have to brave the icy tempest and snowy roads. Thankfully, you can thaw out with these eco-friendly alternatives.

1. Sugar or beet juice

Sugar doesn’t work as quickly as salt, but it still does a sweet job of lowering water’s freezing point. In fact, municipalities around the country are using beet juice — which is basically sugar — as an alternative to salt. It’s a little pricier, but it’s safer for pets and plants and actually works better than salt when the temperature drops below -4°F.

2. Calcium magnesium acetate (CMA)

Commonly found at most hardware stores, CMA is a biodegradable, chloride-free (less corrosive), and less toxic salt substitute. It’ll be sold under various brand names, often with “environmentally friendly” listed on the label. If you’re unsure, just look for it as a main ingredient when choosing your de-icing product.

A 50-pound bag of CMA can cost around $20, making it a more expensive option than ordinary rock salt — but it’s still cheaper than replacing all your plants or paying for a vet.

3. Sand (or coffee grounds if you don’t have pets)

This may be stating the obvious, but anything with grit can help your tires get a grip. That means sand or even used coffee grounds can work in a jiffy when you need to get traction.

Just one word of caution: caffeine is toxic to pets, so avoid using coffee if you have a furry pal running around.

Is salt or kitty litter right for you?

Of course, these eco alternatives might not be right for everyone. After all, salt is readily available, affordable, and effective. And kitty litter can be easier to have on hand than pounds of used coffee grounds or bags of sand.

Weigh in. Given what you now know, would you switch to these eco alternatives or stick the tried-and-true?

Related link

How to Winterize Your Car

Winter Driving Tips

The Science of Skidding (and How to Avoid It)

Kitty litter vs. salt: Which melts ice better?

Must-haves for your winter car emergency kit

2 Responses to “Warning: Using Kitty Litter and Salt to De-ice Could Be Harmful”

  1. Avatar for Anne Le Tran
    Royce Edwards
    March 5, 2014 #

    I would happily use sand. It's cheap ($4 for a 60 lb. bag at Home Depot) and does no harm to plants or animals. In the Spring can be washed to the edge of the lawn where it will mix in with our somewhat sandy soil anyway. I find the traction provided by sand is about the same as kitty litter, without the disappointing mound of gobbed up clay when the season is over.

  2. Avatar for Anne Le Tran
    February 22, 2015 #

    How do I get up the gobs of kitty liter goo?

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