Mercury, a potent neurotoxin, has historically been used as a component of a mechanical tilt switch in thermostats. On average, each mercury thermostat contains approximately four grams of mercury. Improper disposal of these thermostats releases mercury into the environment, contaminating our air, waterways, and land. With over 21 states banning the sale of mercury thermostats, manufacturers have ceased production of these products, but there are still millions of them on the walls of homes, businesses, and institutions across the country. According to a 2002 estimate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), two to three million mercury-containing thermostats come out-of-service nationally every year. There is a critical need to capture these out-of-service mercury thermostats to prevent the release of significant quantities of mercury into the environment.
In 1998, three thermostat manufacturers created the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC), an industry-funded program to collect mercury thermostats. TRC’s national voluntary program for recycling mercury thermostats launched in 2001. Heating and air conditioning (HVAC) wholesale distributors, household hazardous waste facilities, contractors, and thermostat retailers can sign up for a thermostat collection bin (there is an initial charge for the bin, currently $25, in most states; otherwise participation is free). Independent retailers and HVAC wholesalers who sell thermostats can also collect mercury thermostats for TRC in their stores, which can increase store foot traffic and customer loyalty.
Unfortunately, the TRC program has only collected a small fraction of the mercury-containing thermostats still in circulation in the U.S. Based on EPA estimates of the number of mercury thermostats disposed of each year, PSI’s 2013 report Turning Up the Heat II estimated that TRC’s program has collected, at most, 8 percent of thermostats coming out of service over a ten-year period. The unsatisfactory outcome of this voluntary effort highlights the need for extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws to reduce the number of mercury thermostats entering the waste stream.
In 2006, Maine passed the nation’s first EPR law for thermostats, which required the industry to provide a $5 financial incentive for every mercury thermostat returned through a mandatory collection program. Vermont followed suit in 2008 with a similar EPR law providing for a mandatory $5 incentive program. As of 2016, 13 states have EPR laws for mercury thermostats (21 states have laws banning sale or disposal); however, only Maine and Vermont’s programs currently require industry to provide a cash incentive for returned thermostats. Comparing state thermostat collection rates on a per capita basis, it is evident that such incentives are effective: Maine and Vermont have the highest collection rates in the country, with both programs collecting 50 or more thermostats per 10,000 people in 2011.
PSI's Role in Delivering Solutions
Administer's Implementation Support
PSI provides implementation support for mercury thermostat collection programs. PSI has worked with Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality and Covanta to support mercury thermostat collection at HVAC wholesale locations and other collection sites throughout Oklahoma. In 2015 and 2016, PSI worked with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) to pilot a homeowner incentive program for thermostat collection through retail locations. PSI also partnered with the IEPA in 2013-2014 to increase the collection of mercury-containing products (thermostats and auto-switches) under the Illinois Mercury Thermostat Collection Act. PSI covered the initial $25 fee for contractors and wholesalers to participate in TRC’s thermostat collection program, and undertook an extensive outreach campaign to HVAC contractors, demolition contractors, and wholesalers to increase program participation.
Provides Technical Assistance
On an on-going basis, PSI provides technical support for stakeholders to launch new thermostat take-back initiatives or modify existing programs. PSI regularly hosts webinars on mercury thermostat stewardship topics. In 2014 and 2015, PSI held four webinars which addressed the topic of mercury thermostats, including strategies for improving collection, thermostat take back in rural areas, the role of retailers, and trends in mercury use in products.
PSI has done extensive work promoting thermostat collection programs in specific geographic regions, including through payment of the $25 fee for local governments and HVAC retailers to receive a thermostat collection bin from TRC through grant-funded projects. We have completed such projects in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Illinois, and several other states across the country, and in towns such as Bridgeport, Connecticut. In addition, work as part of a USDA grant in 2014-2015 also involved the provision of free TRC thermostat collection bins in the rural Northeast and our USDA-grant funded work for the coming year involves similar outreach and promotion in low-income areas across the rural U.S. These programs have been accompanied by the development and distribution of outreach materials and advertisements promoting the importance of thermostat collection and recycling.
Advocates for EPR Legislation
PSI monitors, informs and advocates for product stewardship legislation for thermostats. We offer expert testimony supporting EPR legislation for hearings and track state legislation to keep our members up to date. PSI mediated the nation’s first comprehensive thermostat legislation in Maine (2006), assisted the Maine Department of Environmental Protection on its consumer and contractor collection programs, and began a thermostat mail-back pilot project. PSI also developed comprehensive model state thermostat EPR legislation.
Brings Stakeholders Together
PSI works to bring various stakeholders together so that state and local governments, and even federal agencies, can create programs and develop solutions that address the need for convenient, safe disposal of mercury thermostats. To allow for an exchange of perspectives, we organize and facilitate meetings between stakeholders across the state and country. After these meetings, we engage multi-stakeholder workgroups to discuss data needs; options for reducing mercury waste; best management practices for collection and disposal; and regulatory issues related to the collection, transport, and disposal of mercury thermostats from households.
PSI provides ongoing support of voluntary collection initiatives, including establishing and facilitating work groups of stakeholders that are taking action at the local and state levels in Nebraska and Oklahoma. PSI held two stakeholder meetings in July and October 2004. The multi-stakeholder group reached agreement on multiple priority projects intended to increase the recycling of mercury thermostats and ban the sales of new mercury thermostats. The projects included outreach to HVAC wholesalers and HVAC contractors to increase the number of collection sites; testing the effectiveness of a financial incentive for contractors and homeowners; and testing collections at household hazardous waste facilities.
Conducts Program Evaluations
PSI offers research and analysis services to inform and shape product stewardship policy. In 2013, PSI worked with the Multi-State Mercury Products Campaign to release Turning Up the Heat II, a report that highlighted the ineffectiveness of TRC's national voluntary thermostat collection and recycling program. The report estimates that over 50 tons of mercury has been unnecessarily released into the environment due to lax regulations and lack of mandated EPR programs for mercury collection. The EPR programs in Maine and Vermont, which require the industry to provide a $5 incentive for every thermostat collected, have achieved much higher per capita collection rates than all other states, demonstrating that a financial incentive is critical to the success of thermostat collection efforts.
Creates Toolkits and Online Resources
PSI provides tools for governments, NGOs and other stakeholders that wish to start or promote thermostat take-back programs. In 2015, PSI developed a Lessons Learned document for Voluntary Mercury Thermostat Take-Back Programs, a Model Demolition/Remodeling Ordinance requiring contractors to recycle mercury thermostats; and model utility contract language to require collection and recycling of thermostats removed as part of energy efficiency programs. In 2004, PSI developed a Background Summary that highlighted the problems, key issues, and potential solutions to managing thermostats.
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For more information, please contact Suna Bayrakal at (617) 671-0616.