Life's a little different once you venture behind the "Cheddar Curtain," that peculiarly Midwestern way to refer to the Illinois-Wisconsin border. There are chocolate cheeses and cheese festivals and even cheese castles. Last year, Wisconsin dairies produced nearly 2.8 billion pounds of cheese.
Not surprisingly, all this leads to some less tasty stuff as well, mostly gallons and gallons of cheese brine (that salty liquid byproduct those gourmet mozzarella balls come in). It's commonly used to quickly add salt to soft cheeses like provolone and mozzarella.
More than a third of those 2.8 billion pounds Wisconsin produced last year were mozzarella. That's a lot of brine, and it can be incredibly expensive for small dairies to get rid of it. But several Wisconsin counties have come up with a potentially ingenious recycling plan: road de-icing.
As Modern Farmer reports, highway officials in Polk County first started experimenting with brine in the winter of 2009, partnering with a local dairy. That first year, the department saved $40,000 on rock salt and sand. The dairy, meanwhile, saved nearly $30,000 in disposal and treatment costs (they typically generate 35,000 to 50,000 gallons of brine a year).
It turns out that the cheese brine may work better than some traditional de-icing agents. It has a lower freezing point of 21 below zero, while regular salt brine freezes at 6 below. When added to normal rock salt, cheese brine also worked wonders as a "pre-wetting" agent, helping make sure the salt doesn't bounce off the road and go to waste. It was so effective that Polk County officials said they used 30 percent less road salt than usual during that first year.
Intrigued by the success of these smaller counties, Milwaukee's Department of Public Works has signed off on a pilot program to use cheese brine this winter. After failed attempts to use molasses (too smelly and messy) and beet juice (it looked like oatmeal), officials are launching a $6,500 cheese pilot.
One unanswered question is the environmental impact of dumping untreated cheese brine -- stuff that, normally, undergoes an extensive disposal processing -- right onto the roadways.
Rock salt, far and away the most effective de-icer, has been fingered as a major pollutant of urban waterways. Cheese brine itself is fairly salty -- more than 25 percent for "fully saturated" brine -- so it's bound to have some of the same effects. And the impact of some of the other components on the water supply are still unclear. The brine is strained before it's spread on the road, but fine organic components are left behind. The breakdown of these compounds can disrupt local waterways by rapidly altering their bacteria levels and, as a result, vastly lowering the oxygen levels available for other organisms.
Even independent of this uncertain environmental impact, there's already one very obvious downside to what most are hailing as a total win-win: the stench. What Wisconsin has really done is spread huge amounts of tiny pieces of organic matter, and the scent of rotting cheese will soon be wafting up from the winter roadways. Imagine your dirty winter car covered in the stuff. Pleasant.
But maybe those behind the Cheddar Curtain just won't mind as much. In a charming video interview last year for a pro-dairy puff piece, Emil "Moe" Norby, the Polk County highway employee who first pioneered the brine-recycling plan, praised his cheesy solution. "I guess here in Polk County our roads smell like Wisconsin."