Striving for Incremental Change: Salt Watch and Social Marketing

Abby Hileman
Leftover road salt - credit Michael Reinemer

From the beginning of the Salt Watch program, it was evident that the issue of road salt pollution was multifaceted. Not only does road salt have a wide range of impacts on infrastructure, the environment and human health, but the source of the pollution problem is also complex.

State and county departments of transportation apply road salt. But many others also apply salt: private business owners, property managers, apartment and condo complexes, school maintenance workers, faith-based organizations, contractors (often landscaping companies that shift to snow removal in the winter) and private homeowners.

We need to narrow our focus and tackle one part of a problem at a time.

The Izaak Walton League’s Salt Watch program tackles this complex problem from all angles: we are piloting intensive campaigns to different audiences in Maryland (such as business owners, school groups and Scout troops) and we are hosting Smart Salt certification courses and equipping volunteers with advocacy tools to make changes in their communities.

As a result of these efforts, the understanding of how road salt can and should be used is certainly growing.

However, the education does not stop there. There is a larger story about salt pollution and reducing our environmental impact while keeping us all safe. For instance, driving slowly in the winter, planning ahead or staying home during winter weather events and being patient while maintenance workers and applicators clear the roadways all play a part. There is a wide variety of solutions but no “one-size-fits-all” answer.

Salt Watch also affirms that changing behavior is hard, even when it leads to a dramatically better environment – without sacrificing safety, of course. This juncture between behavior and environmental health is where social marketing comes into play.

Social marketing is a “process that applies marketing principles and techniques to create, communicate and deliver value in order to influence target audience behaviors that benefit society (public health, safety, the environment, and communities)” (Kotler, Lee, and Rothschild, Social Marketing: Influencing Behaviors for Good, 2008, 3rd edition).

It is a process that allows us to understand the barriers to limiting road salt use so we can effectively influence that change.

One Step at a Time

The first important aspect of influencing change is to not take on too much. It’s better to focus instead on a specific step. For example, rather than aiming to “reduce road salt use,” which we would all like to see, we should instead consider taking on a smaller piece of the overall goal, such as “limiting road salt use by private homeowners on their driveways.”

Salt Watch affirms that changing behavior is hard, even when it leads to a dramatically better environment.

When creating a goal, be as specific as possible and make sure the goal is measurable. For this example, we need to understand first how much road salt the average homeowner is using, the reasons why most people use too much and the barriers that are preventing them from changing their behavior. Once we take measure of the issue at hand and ask questions about the problem, we can then come up with an amenable solution to incite behavior change.

Many of our behaviors are not intended to cause harm to the environment; we simply do not understand the problem, or we forget. How many times have you forgotten to take reusable shopping bags into the grocery store? Sometimes we just need a reminder, or a prompt, to keep us on track. Other times, we need some additional information before we can make a change.

For the example illustrated in the chart, homeowners are more likely to change their over-salting behavior after being supplied with a mug that both prompts and educates them about how much salt to use.


Homeowners use too much road salt on their driveways


  • Lack of understanding of how road salt works

  • Misleading information on rock salt bags


Not knowing proper amount of road salt to apply


Supply homeowners with a 12-oz mug with messaging about how 12oz of salt is enough for a 20ft driveway

Look Through a Social Marketing Lens

When tackling a conservation issue in your community, try to approach it with a social marketing lens, and ask the following questions:

  1. Is the problem I am trying to solve narrow enough that I can effectively influence behavior and track change?

  2. How do I measure the problem so I can track changes between the beginning of the project and the end?

  3. What are the reasons for the problem? Is it a lack of education about the issue? Lack of alternatives?

  4. What are the barriers to change? Will the solution require your target audience to take an extra step, go out of their way or spend more money?

  5. How can I lower the barriers to entry to ensure more people are taking the action I would like them to take?

  6. What can I use to effectively remind (or prompt) people to take that action?

As Salt Watch has evolved and our messaging has spread across dozens of states, we have narrowed our focus on audiences and behavior. Rather than trying to inspire change across all road salt users, our regional project this year has one focus area – encouraging business owners and applicators to take a Smart Salt Certification Training. The training asks and answers all the questions above through a social marketing lens.

While this approach may reach a smaller number of people, the influence it creates is lasting. It’s a good reminder that we need to narrow our focus and tackle one part of a problem at a time. We also can never make assumptions about the causes and barriers around a problem. We need to ask questions first. And sometimes, the answers to those questions will be something we would never have expected, allowing us to come up with an even more creative and lasting solution.

What You Can Do Now

How much salt is flowing into your local streams this year? Find out with our interactive map.

Ready to take action? Get involved with Salt Watch and see how you can advocate for smarter salt use in your community.

In 2023, we will be launching a similar program that will allow volunteers nationwide to collect and report data about nitrate levels in streams and drinking water. Get started with Nitrate Watch.

Get updates like this delivered to your inbox

Top photo: This leftover road salt in Annandale, Virginia, eventually washes into Accotink Creek and the Potomac River. Credit: Michael Reinemer.

Newsletter Sign Up