Greenwashing and CBC #4: Organic Melt ice remover

Continuing from last week with #4 on the CBC Marketplace "Lousy Labels" greenwashing list is Organic Melt ice remover.

As I mention each time, Marketplace is a 22 minute show and they did a 10-product countdown, giving them an average of 2 minutes per product, so there's only so much they can cover. I'm filling in with a bunch of stuff they couldn't have shown even if they wanted to, consisting of whatever I find that I think is relevant. Not having a 2-min time limit is handy that way.

So, the Organic Melt ice remover product brochure says that it's 100% natural, gentle on concrete and plants when used as directed, and a few other things that speak more to its effectiveness than its eco-friendliness.

Marketplace says (on asking the manufacturer) that despite the label claims, the product is only 3% organic (beets) and the rest is rock salt.

(At this point I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that rock salt is perfectly natural. If there were any above-ground rock salt deposits left (those that haven't dissolved in the rain have already been harvested) you could walk up to one and bash some rock salt loose for yourself. It's just not a plant, which is what a lot of people seem to mean when they say something is "natural".)

The Organic Melt MSDS lists the two ingredients (NaCl, aka rock salt; sugar beet extract) but doesn't display the percentage of each. The "synonyms" and "chemical class" sections, however, do acknowledge that it's mostly salt.

Ok, the claims.

Organic Melt says it's 100% natural. Technically true since rock salt is natural, but with that number displayed on a bunch of leaves, it's highly misleading since many people associate "natural" with "plant-based". They're definitely using that perception to their advantage, especially by listing the sugar beet extract first in the ingredients list, since for many products, the ingredients list has to be ordered with the highest quantity first.

Organic Melt says it's "gentle on concrete and plants when used as directed". So... the directions say "Spread the product evenly at a rate of 1/3 cup (75 ml) to one square meter. As the product begins to work, remove the melted snow and ice with caution not to pile near vegetation." Well. Yes, if you shovel up the half-melted snow and ice off your concrete sidewalk and dispose of it somewhere away from plants, it would be gentle on the plants, because it wouldn't be in contact with them for very long. This is no different from a pure NaCl product without the sugar beet extract handled in the same way.

On being asked, Organic Melt said that the beet extract allowed a lower application rate than just rock salt, and allowed it to continue working at much lower temperatures, -30C instead of the -15C of pure rock salt.

So the application rate for Organic Melt is 75mL to 1m2. I found a reference for city de-icing crews which says that it depends on the conditions (fair enough) but it's usually between 200-800 lbs per lane-mile. Which is a really useful set of units when you have a truck and a spreader and plan to cover many miles, but not for a person with a sidewalk and a driveway. So a "standard" lane in the US where this document was produced is typically about 12ft wide (3.66m) and 1 mile is about 1609m, making one lane-mile equivalent to 3.66 * 1609 = 5,888.94m2. 200lbs is 90.7kg, which then works out to an application rate of 90,700g/5,888.94m2 = 15.4g/m2. Which is substantially less than 75mL for that same square meter. Ok, 800lb is 362.9kg, giving 362,900g/5,888.94m2 = 61.6g/m2. Getting closer to filling up 1/3 cup to spread on a square meter; how many grams exactly fits in 75mL would depend on how densely you pack it in.

How does this match with Organic Melt's claim of having a lower application rate? Are they working from a different set of recommendations than the one I found on google, which recommends higher application rates? I looked around some more, trying to find application rates specific to sidewalks rather than highways, and found a very wide range of suggestions, from 70-120g/m2 (7-12 kg/100m2) from a study at the University of Waterloo which plowed then salted then observed, to 3.6-14.6g/m2 (0.75-3.0 lb/1000ft2) from the state of Minnesota which assumed anti-icing application before the storm followed by aggressive snow removal as part of the salting process.

Clearly the professional guidelines are not what Organic Melt is comparing itself to, but they also work with anti-icing application beforehand. Only the university study is in the same range, but it is closer to the Organic Melt rate.

How about the sugar beet extract claims?

Well, it turns out that the stuff remains liquid at very low temperatures. Not only sugar beet residuals, but also sugar cane molasses residuals and other molasses residuals, according to this patent. This liquid can be sprayed, even at -35C, onto pavement prior to a snow, and it sticks around and keep ice from forming. The patent says the ideal composition is 40-90% sugar beet juice with the rest salt or other de-icing stuff. Now, a patent isn't necessarily the last word on the best way to do something, but it's still an interesting guideline. And what this makes me wonder is how much the 3% sugar beet juice helps the salt in the Organic Melt. Even a little bit mixed with the salt will lower the freezing point, and they certainly aren't claiming effectiveness at those temperatures, only at temperatures below rock salt alone. (The freezing point of a mixture is usually somewhere between the freezing points of the individual components.)

So this one is kind of confusing. One the one hand, sugar beet juice residual is a known good de-icer, and is fairly easy on the environment. On the other hand, this product is, according to its MSDS, "treated salt". Being good to a lower temperature than plain salt means that at most temperatures you need less of it to get the same ice-melt abilities. As it gets colder, you need more salt to melt the same amount of ice—but the product instructions don't have any indication of how much less you need when it's warmer, so there's a good chance that the single application rate provided is for the coldest temperatures it works at, to make sure it performs as advertised.

From the application rates I was able to find, this product doesn't seem to use less than plain salt, and as far as environmental effects, it and plain salt both are supposed to be removed as soon as they get the ice loosened up enough to be shoveled up.

Bottom line: I'm not convinced that this product has environmental benefit over plain salt. It does have melting capabilities at lower temperatures than plain salt, however, but that isn't an environmental benefit but a functional benefit. I'm inclined to call this one greenwashing.

Greenwashing series:
10: Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug killer
9: Sunlight Green Clean Laundry Detergent
8: Obusforme EcoLogic Contoured pillow
7: Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner
6: Eco Collection bath mitt
5: Vim PowerPro Naturals
4: Organic Melt ice remover
3: T-fal Natura frying pan
2: Biodegradable J Cloth
1: Dawn Antibacterial Hand Soap
Final thoughts

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