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Wisconsin’s cheesy innovation

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By spraying city streets with cheese brine, Milwaukee aims to save money and reduce pollution.


For generations, picture-takers have instructed their subjects to say “cheese.”


Well, no people say “cheese” better than Wisconsinites, who unabashedly wear cheesehead hats in public, celebrate dozens of cheese festivals, have a Monterey Jack bacterium as the states’ official microbe, and generally honor the milk curd as a deity.


Naturally, Wisconsin would be the state to come up with the idea of spraying its city streets with cheese brine.


This isn’t some sort of cheesy tourist promotion, but an actual attempt to blend two problems into one clever solution.


Problem No. 1: ice. Wisconsin gets lots of it, with Milwaukee alone averaging more than four feet of snow each winter. The city spends some $10 million a year to apply rock salt to clear its frozen streets.


Not only is that a lot of money, but about 30 percent of the dry salt bounces off the roadways and pollutes waterways.


Problem No. 2: cheese brine. This state produces nearly 3 billion pounds of cheese a year, so Wisconsin has lots of this waste product from cheese-making.


It costs typical dairy farmers thousands of dollars each year to dispose of their brine. But this winter, farmers are donating their waste problem to cities like Milwaukee. Those urban centers are hauling the brine to their road maintenance facilities and blending it into the rock salt.


The idea is to create a mixture with just the right stickiness to keep the salt from bouncing away. “You want to use provolone or mozzarella,” says a Milwaukee public works manager. “Those have the best salt content. You have to do practically nothing to it.”


Voilá — two messes equal a neat solution. Wisconsin officials still consider their cheese-coated streets an experiment, but it seems to be working out fine.


And it’s just one example of the many innovative alternatives local governments across our country are producing.


OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker. He’s also editor of the populist newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown www.OtherWords.org.

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