What are the issues?
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 15 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), 2–3 million mercury-containing thermostats come out of service nationally every year. There is a critical need to capture all remaining mercury thermostats before tons of mercury are released 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 launched in 2001, but the program has only collected a small fraction – between 5.8% and 8% – of mercury-containing thermostats in the U.S over that period. The unsatisfactory outcome of this 13-year 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 the mandatory collection program. Vermont followed suit in 2008, passing a similar EPR law with a $5 incentive, or “bounty.” As of 2014, 11 states have EPR laws for mercury thermostats; 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.
What is PSI Doing to Help?
Since 2004, PSI has worked with multiple stakeholders to advocate for an extended producer responsibility (EPR) approach to collecting and recycling mercury thermostats. PSI also provides technical support to analyze and improve existing EPR laws to strengthen program performance. By regularly holding strategic conference calls and developing model legislation, PSI serves as a coordinated voice on behalf of its government members. Here are some important highlights, starting with the most recent, first:
2013 – 2014
With funding from the U.S. EPA, PSI partnered with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency on a pilot project to increase the collection of mercury-containing products under the Illinois Mercury Thermostat Collection Act
and the Illinois Mercury Switch Removal Act
. The project employed outreach efforts and financial incentives aimed at developing a model that can be replicated throughout the Great Lakes region and beyond. The program, which ran from May 1, 2013 through May 31, 2014, covered the $25 fee for contractors and wholesalers to receive a thermostat collection bin from the Thermostat Recycling Corporation
. For mercury-containing automobile switches the program tested the effects of additional financial incentives beyond the $2 per switch required by law, providing an additional $2 per switch for hood and trunk lighting switches, and $4 for each switch from anti-lock braking systems and airbag crash sensors. To encourage increased participation, the program also offered a one-time $100 “first bucket bonus” to auto recyclers who had not returned auto switches for recycling since September, 2011.
These financial incentives were accompanied by an extensive outreach campaign to auto recyclers and HVAC contractors, demolition contractors, and wholesalers. Outreach included mailings (via email and post), phone follow-up and an informational poster for Illinois’ auto recyclers.
PSI worked with the Multi-State Mercury Products Campaign to release Turning Up the Heat II
, a report that highlighted the ineffectiveness of the Thermostat Recycling Corporation’s (TRC) national voluntary thermostat collection and recycling program. According to EPA estimates of the number of mercury thermostats disposed of each year, the report estimates that TRC’s program has collected, at most, 8 percent of thermostats coming out of service over a ten-year period. This means that over 50 tons of mercury has been unnecessarily released into the environment. The report also estimates the number of mercury thermostats and amount of mercury collected from 2009 – 2011 in each of the 47 states with some sort of program, as TRC stopped reporting actual collection data in 2008. 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.
PSI completed a project to maximize mercury thermostat collection and recycling in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a city whose residents have historically experienced elevated exposure to mercury. PSI partnered with the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, and the City of Bridgeport to undertake a comprehensive program to expand the number of collection sites and thermostats collected. The final report
summarizes project activities, challenges, and results, and offers lessons learned for future mercury thermostat collection initiatives.
2006 – 2007
PSI mediated the nation’s first comprehensive thermostat legislation in Maine, 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 a comprehensive model state thermostat program
. Performance goals and incentives are key components to the model program.
2004 – 2007
To view existing mercury thermostat laws in the U.S., visit our State EPR Laws page. To view pending and active thermostat legislation in the U.S.—privileged content available exclusively to PSI Members and Partners—login here.
For more information, please contact Suna Bayrakal at (617) 671-0616.