Road salt — a costly way to fight winter

dump truck carrying road salt
Livable Cities Technology and Innovation

As winter recedes and spring fills the air, Canadians find the chalky residue of salt everywhere. Road salt is an inexpensive option to clear our streets of ice and snow, but the damages to our cities and environment cost us in the long run. Can ecofiscal policies offer a potential solution? Or might another policy toolkit be required?

Salt in the wound

Canada loves salt. We drop 7 million tonnes on our roads, sidewalks and parking lots every winter. Keeping our streets clear is vital to public safety, but road salt is corrosive and toxic. It ages our roads, cars, bridges, and buildings and harms our ecosystems and waterways.

Not only do Canadians love road salt, we spend a lot on it — both upfront and in the long run. At $50 per tonne, Canada buys about $350 million of the stuff every year. Estimates peg the economic and environmental damages at anywhere between $680 and $3,900 per tonne.[1] Conservatively, that’s $4.8 billion in additional costs for our physical assets and ecosystems, and most of them don’t show up on public financial statements.

In other words, salt use has externalities. Here at the Ecofiscal Commission, we’re quite interested in externalities. And we’re especially interested in the policy solutions that might address them.

Hidden costs

Municipalities know that road salt (a.k.a. sodium chloride) causes problems, but they use it anyway. That’s because it’s inexpensive and works immediately, while the externalities are dispersed, slow acting and often invisible.

Private costs are easy to identify but tough to quantify, especially in aggregate. Motorists pay for the wear and tear of their brake pads and frames and property owners pay for the corrosion of rebar and steel in their buildings. These are generally seen as a cost of doing business; we can’t live on an ice rink for five months of the year, after all.

Environmental costs are more dispersed. They don’t respect city limits, and municipalities may have limited incentive to account for them. Though they have to treat the saline runoff taken in by storm drains, much of the melt makes its way to our lakes and rivers. As creatures of the provinces, municipalities don’t have the jurisdiction or resources to address these larger-scale environmental impacts.

Municipalities should worry, however, about the reduced lifespan of municipal assets. The issue here is that it’s far harder for municipalities to run operating deficits than capital deficits. Using road salt prevents the former but expedites the latter, and the costs of upgrading and replacement (but not maintenance) are often split through grants and other federal and provincial programs. Most municipalities also lack an agency to coordinate finances, which means some municipal departments may lack an incentive to account for (to use more economic jargon, internalize) these costs.

An unusual problem

Canadian municipalities are taking different approaches to address the issue of road salt. Voluntary codes of practice to minimize usage are the most common, but some have chosen innovative pilot programs as well:

What about pricing policies?

Can ecofiscal policy provide more effective, lower cost approaches to reducing damages?

In short, probably not. Simply pricing salt to reflect the damages it causes likely won’t work. Municipalities lack the authority to tax private usage, and they can’t tax themselves. Even if they could, it wouldn’t create much of an incentive, since municipalities would also collect the revenue. Other policy tools are problematic too. By-laws aren’t a good fit. We can’t expect municipalities to tie their own hands or use alternatives (which are six to 20 times as expensive) until costs come down.

Here at Ecofiscal, our focus is pricing policies. And for many environmental externalities—like GHG emissions, water use, or traffic congestion—pricing the externality is a smart, cost-effective solution. But we need to keep in mind that some problems are best tackled with other policy approaches. Ecofiscal policies are a great tool, but as every carpenter knows, just because you have your favourite hammer doesn’t mean that every problem is a nail.

Road salt might be one of those problems, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.  Considering what salt costs us every year, Canadian municipalities have been wise to look for solutions elsewhere.

[1] Adjusted to $CDN and for inflation

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