Milwaukee might not salt its icy roads this winter. Instead, the city plans to cover its potentially hazardous motorways with cheese brine, the salt-and-water solution used in the production of cheese. The brine, considered a wasteful byproduct, is apparently cheaper and much more abundant than rock salt. (Well, at least it is in Wisconsin, the country’s leader in cheese production.)
Milwaukee got the idea from the folks in Polk County, Wis., who’ve been using cheese brine on their roads since 2008. Bloomberg Businessweek tracked down Moe Norby, the technical support manager at Polk County’s Highway Department, who pioneered the use of brine as a highway safety measure.
OK, so why cheese brine?
We don’t have our own saltmaker up here and buying one is really expensive. I started trying to think of other ways to salt the road, and I thought, dairy farms soak their cheese in brine. Brine is salty. Maybe we can use that. We started testing the brine in late 2008, and it worked perfectly. We saved $40,000 the first year. Since then, I’d estimate that our costs are down 30 percent because of it.
How did you test it? Did you just sneak out and spread cheese brine all over the roads?
In a way, yeah. We took two roads that went north and south and applied it on one road but not the other. You could see a definite improvement.
And ever since then, it’s been cheese brine all the way.
We use it in conjunction with regular salt. But it allows us to use less salt, and it clears the roads faster. The only thing is, it’s a waste product. So we had to go through the proper channels to get approval to spread a waste product on the roads.
Where do you get the brine?
We get ours from F&A Dairy Products in Dresser, Wis. They make provolone, muenster, cheddar. We use 35,000 to 50,000 gallons if their brine a year, depending on the winter.
Do you do anything to it before it gets used?
We strain any bits of cheese out of it.
Do your roads smell like cheese?
The liquid smells like cheese before you apply it. But when it’s on the road, you don’t smell it. You don’t drive through Polk Country smelling like cheese.
Are you the first person to come up with this idea?
For one week in 2005, Washington state experimented with it, but it was a really small program and they didn’t continue it. As far as I know, we’re the first to use it officially. I’ve heard that other townships in the state have started to experiment. A buddy of mine told me about Milwaukee.
What did people say when you first said to them, “Hey guys, let’s put cheese brine on our roads?”
Oh, I’ve definitely taken some joking from my fellow co-workers.