To Tackle Icy Streets, Milwaukee Experiments with Cheese Brine

Dec 10, 2013

Credit Polk County Highway Department

Milwaukee is trying out a new twist on winter road de-icing – a splash of cheese brine.

The city spends on average $6 million, occasionally as much as $14 million, during a winter season to manage the snow and ice on streets.

This year, it decided to invest $1400 in a cheese brine pilot. The pilot targets a small quadrant of Bay View. The brine resembles dirty water - it is a salt and water solution that is used to make cheese such as mozzarella and Parmesan. Cheesemakers normally discard the used-up brine as wastewater.

The DNR has issued only one permit to a far northwestern Wisconsin cheesemaker, F & A Dairy Products,  to repurpose its brine. The City of Milwaukee is allowed to piggy-back on the permit, so it picked up 600 gallons of the “brew” to blend with rock salt.

The recipe is 8 gallons of brine for every ton of salt.

Milwaukee is banking on the fact that cheese brine remains in its liquid form at pretty cold temperatures, and that when the brine is blended with the rock salt, the salt sticks better to the street – rather than bouncing off the roadway.

The Polk County Highway Department is sold on cheese brine. F & A Diary Products is located in that county and its highway commission was the first to partner with the company back in 2009. Polk County stores up to 10,000 gallons of the brine in tanks and treats 680 miles of its state and county roads with the concoction.

Some concerns are swirling around Milwaukee’s pilot, including the smell of the brine, and whether it might attract small critters. The Department of Public Works is going to be monitoring just that, along with its de-icing effectiveness.

But the Polk County highway commissioner says it has had zero problems and claims there is “no odor.”

This isn’t Milwaukee’s first experiment with de-icing alternatives. It dappled with beet juice in 2009; and a molasses-type  product – but each came up short.

So the city continues seeking de-icers that could be easier on the environment and cars – and perhaps less expensive, not to mention, renewable.