There is so much wrong with the way Salem deals with solid waste.

To begin with, our elected officials are forcing us to pay the highest garbage rates of any comparable city in Oregon. That’s right, the highest. Rates just went up in January. Even before the rate increase, Salem residents in Marion County paid higher garbage rates than in any other major Oregon city for comparable service, according to a September 17, 2017, report from Bell & Associates.*

Beginning on January 1st Salem residents in Marion County began paying $23.55 monthly for weekly pick-up of a 20 gallon garbage cart, weekly pick-up of a mixed organics cart and every other week pick-up of recyclables. That is not an affordable cost for low-income families and seniors on fixed incomes. At their February 26th meeting the City Council heard about a new pilot program that our haulers will offer for every other week service at a discount. That would be great! Except the discount they are offering is only 13%, about $3 a month. How is that going to provide relief to low income households? It’s not.

The Bell & Associates report also indicates that last year in Eugene residents there were paying only $15.54 for every other week garbage, yard waste and recycling service.  Our haulers are offering to provide the same service on a pilot basis for $20.40 a month. Why the big difference?

Maybe it has to do a lot with the fact that Marion County is the only county in Oregon that contracts with a multinational corporation to profit from burning our garbage in an incinerator.** Marion County contracts with the multinational corporation Covanta to burn our garbage just north of town near Brooks. The incinerator generates electricity, but it also produces over 160,000 metric tons of CO2 pollution annually. As the Salem Weekly reported last December, the Covanta/Marion incinerator ranks #18 on DEQ’s list of the top greenhouse gas polluters in all of Oregon. When we pass a cap and invest bill to fight global warming, as the Legislature now seems likely to do next year, Covanta/Marion will have to begin to pay for all that pollution, and rightly so. But it will be the ratepayers who will ultimately have to bear the burden. Our “highest in the state” rates will increase even more.


This is a diagram of an Energy From Waste facility like the one in Brooks.


Besides being a huge emitter of greenhouse gases, Covanta/Marion emits harmful chemicals including dioxin, lead, cadmium, mercury, and nitrogen oxide. Oregon, thankfully, will be shutting down its only coal-fired power plant in Boardman in 2020. But garbage incinerators like Covanta/Marion are more polluting than coal plants. As the Energy Justice Network has pointed out: “To make the same amount of energy as a coal power plant, trash incinerators release 28 times as much dioxin than coal, 2.5 times as much carbon dioxide (CO2), twice as much carbon monoxide, three times as much nitrogen oxides (NOx), 6-14 times as much mercury, nearly six times as much lead and 70% more sulfur dioxides.”

The Salem City Council has no say in whether we burn our garbage, at an exorbitant cost to residents and to the environment, or not. There is a state law that gives sole authority to the Marion County Commissioners. That’s wrong. The Salem City Council needs to work to change the state law, if necessary, to protect ratepayers and the environment.

For starters the Salem City Council needs to hold a work session to air out all aspects of our smelly solid waste policies in public. They need to hear from Marion County and from the garbage haulers and from concerned citizens. Their goal should be to seek long term reductions in our outrageous garbage rates that are hurting low income families and seniors. And their goal should also be to stop the pollution of our air with greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals.

Is that too much to ask?

*According to the Bell & Associates report residents of Gresham paid more than residents of Salem/Marion County last year for garbage service, but they received weekly recycling service instead of every other week recycling service. Read the report here:

**Salem residents in Polk County (West Salem) pay less because haulers there are not forced to send their garbage to the Covanta/Marion incinerator. Their garbage goes to the Coffin Butte landfill near Corvallis which charges the haulers significantly lower tipping fees which lowers the cost for West Salem residents. They currently pay only $18.10 a month for garbage service compared to $23.55 in the rest of Salem. And Coffin Butte only emits one/sixth the amount of greenhouse gases as Covanta/Marion.