Aggregates can be abrasive
Eventually, whenever the snowstorms finally do subside, many of us will be forced to deal with abrasives. We’re not talking about crusty characters here. We’re delving into road abrasives, those vital yet vexing elements that are poured onto our roads to ensure we don’t all end up in the ditch.
Of course, whenever we get doused with freezing rain, country drivers are very pleased to see the municipal plow chewing up the gravel surface and/or laying on a copious quantity of sand or whatever is de rigueur in the world of road maintenance products this year.
The down side to this wise and widespread practice is that what goes onto a road usually ends up in the atmosphere, on a shoulder or in a ditch. Aggregates can be so aggravating. During those wonderful early spring days, between snowstorms, we can see the promise of warm weather in the form of dirty snowbanks, speckled with bits of gravel and discarded coffee cups. Gradually, as the last vestiges of winter begin to recede, so do the granular materials, while the coffee cups remain forever. Where do all those abrasives go? We realize that as we begin raking along a ditch that large quantities of materials lurk in the undergrowth, and that many of these sharp hard bits are impossible to discover, let alone remove.
They conceal themselves in the slowly growing grass and await that glorious day when a home owner fires up the lawn mower. Then the abrasives attack the lawnmower blades, dulling them as the particles are caught up by the blades and fired into the air.
The sound of a rock dinging off the inside of a mower is one of the many harbingers of spring.
But that pinging in your ears also signals a horrible waste of resources. Abrasives don’t grow on trees; every year, tonnes of the materials are applied to roads at great public cost. There ought to be some way of reducing our reliance on road maintenance products that wind up in our ditches and on our lawns.
Even on paved roads, the volume of materials shoved onto shoulders is massive. The evidence is there for every motorist to see.
For decades, sand was the go-to road product. But with time, the use of salt and other de-icing chemicals caught on. Sand fell out of favour because its friction qualities were questioned, and it was considered to be too messy. Thus, salt took over as the most trusted friction-creating element. We all know if you want to create friction, just mention somebody is using too much salt. Of course, this trend is not healthy. “Ontario has some of the most abundant freshwater sources in the world. But excessive road salt is contaminating Ontario’s lakes, rivers, creeks and groundwater. Too much road salt in water does significant and lasting harm to aquatic ecosystems, and can make water undrinkable,” warns the Enviornmental Commissioner of Ontario.
The biggest single users of road salt in the province are the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) and large municipalities.
While governments have taken steps to decrease salt use, “people who spread road salt on private parking lots, driveways and walkways may not understand how much salt is best, or when to use it to ensure safety,” the ECO says. Research by the University of Waterloo showed the potential for the reduction of at least 25 per cent in salt use.
Some reports note that the hidden costs of road salt on infrastructure and the environment range from $200 to $470 per tonne of road salt applied. Corrosion from salt can cost car owners $850 per year and result in vehicle brake failures.
But common sense and due diligence demand that we do our utmost to ensure that slippery surfaces are as safe as possible. Any icy sidewalk can lead to broken bones, a slick parking lot can produce a lawsuit.
Whether it is sand or salt, or a combination of abrasives, we all need some sort of traction aid. And, unfortunately, it will all come out in the wash, and the rain, and down the drains.