Sweet plan would put less salt on Michigan roads in the winter

Michigan ranks number three in the production of sugar beets in the country, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture. And Bay County gets about 41 inches of snow each year, according to the NOAA National Climatic Data Center.

Those two statements seem unrelated. But State Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) is asking the state to study how a sugar beet byproduct mixed with road salt could melt snow and ice on Michigan roads. The mix could reduce the corrosive effects of spreading salt alone on roads and bridges. Road salt also flows into the watershed, creating environmental concerns.

House Bill 4716 is making its way through the steps toward approval and could be on its way to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's desk. The Senate version, SB 279, was introduced by State Sen. Roger Victory and passed in September by a vote of 34 -2. Elder said the bill calls for the Michigan Department of Transportation to study how a mix of the sugar beet byproduct and road salt works in various cities throughout the state, including in the Upper Peninsula. If approved, the study culminates at the end of the 2022 season.

 “The purpose behind the bill is to create a pilot program where MDOT will try this in a number of locations throughout the state so that we can basically do the scientific research to determine if this process would be an improvement,” said Elder, who is also the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee in the Michigan House of Representatives.

Every year, at four production facilities in Bay City, Caro, Croswell and Sebewaing, Michigan Sugar Company turn tons of beets into 1 billion pounds of sugar. There are a few communities already using the salt mix, including Frankenmuth. In those cities, the road salt is soaked in beet juice, also called molasses, before spreading it on the roads.

 “It helps the salt stick to the road and because it does that, you use significantly less salt, and if you use less salt, the watershed doesn’t become salinized and we don’t have all the environmental concerns,” said Elder.

John Boothroyd, Manager of Government Relations for Michigan Sugar Company based in Bay City, said the company is excited about the possibility of making use of more of the organic material left over from sugar beet processing.

“We think there’s a lot of potential to tackle some of the problems we’re facing with the infrastructure,” he said. “We like being part of the long-term solution to the problems we’re facing as far as the roads in this state.”

Boothroyd said currently most of the molasses, which is left over after sugar is extracted from the beets, is sold to third party marketers who then re-sell it as dairy feed. Other sugar beet byproducts also could fulfill the same function, Boothroyd said.

“We’re confident we can fulfill both the dairy and the road industry in Michigan,” Boothroyd said.

Growers can likely expect to benefit from the added use, but Boothroyd  added mid-Michigan’s growers are not likely to see huge benefits right away. Any increase in revenue because of the new use will be passed on to sugar beet producers first. It could eventually help farmers, he added.

Elder said he also thinks it will ultimately benefit growers to some degree, but also said he couldn’t speculate about what that benefit would look like. “I don’t think it’s going to be a huge market boon per se, but whenever any food processor or manufacturer can find a use for their byproduct, it’s better to be able to use that rather than have it go to waste.”

Elder said not only does he hope the pilot studies are done throughout his district, but the entire state. The impact could be different in areas such as the Upper Peninsula, where snow amounts and winter temperatures are much more dramatic.

If mixing sugar beets and road salt creates an effective de-icer, it could save the state money.“What we would like to see is that MDOT will choose a number of different locations throughout the entire state then do the real science to determine when it works, where it works, and if it fails, why. Then we’ll know if it’s a good idea or not,” said Elder.

 “I really like this idea because in this particular application you’re taking a biodegradable byproduct and you’re finding another use for it, which is always good for the environment. It should effectively lower the cost for the government and that’s always good for the taxpayers, and it’s also good for the environment,” he said. 

Boothroyd said Michigan Sugar also thinks it’s a good idea. “It’s a small non-controversial and non-partisan way to take steps toward protecting our resources,” he said. “Although (the legislation) specifies beet juice, it also points to other derivatives, and since beets don’t contribute to rust or corrosion, we’d love to see this Michigan-made product being used to come up with a solution to damage to the state’s infrastructure.”

Elder said the bill only compels MDOT to conduct the scientific research, and hopes to see that research start during the upcoming winter. He said he fully expects the bill to pass and be signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, but he could not guess how long that will take.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.