Prior to 2003, automakers installed more than 250 million mercury-containing switches (for trunk and hood lights, anti-lock brake systems, and airbag sensors) in vehicles sold in the U.S. That’s more than 325 tons of mercury.
Since then, automakers have phased out mercury switches in new vehicles. But millions of older cars with mercury switches come off the road each year. When the switches are not removed before these vehicles are shredded or crushed for scrap, the mercury inside is released into the environment, where it contaminates our air, waterways, and land, and threatens human health.
PSI advocates for “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) laws that require manufacturers to manage toxic legacy products like mercury-containing auto switches, light bulbs, and thermostats. EPR laws ensure that auto switch recovery programs are sustainably funded and operate until all mercury switches have been safely managed. Well-crafted EPR programs also educate salvage yards and scrap processors about the importance of removing and safely managing mercury switches.
In 2006, an agreement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, automaker associations, the Automotive Recyclers Association, and others created the voluntary National Vehicle Mercury Switch Program to collect mercury switches. The program established a $4 million fund to reward vehicle dismantlers with $2 for each mercury switch they collected. That is, until 2009 – only three years later – when the incentive fund was depleted and never restored. Worse, the national program will end in 2021, when the voluntary agreement expires.
In states with EPR programs, however, auto switch collection will continue until the last mercury switch has been safely managed. Today, only auto dismantlers in some states with legislated EPR programs receive incentives for collecting mercury switches -- a key component of program success among states with the highest auto switch recovery rates.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin. Even in small amounts, it can cause permanent brain, nervous sytem, and kidney damage. Between 200,000 and 460,000 children are born in the U.S. each year with mercury levels associated with IQ loss at later ages.
How We’re Leading the Way
PSI provides best practices, technical assistance, and lobbying support to government agencies seeking to pass or improve an EPR law for auto switches. We conduct research and evaluations to understand best practices for auto switch recycling programs. Contact us to learn how PSI can evaluate the program in your state.
In partnership with the Illinois EPA, we ran a pilot project that temporarily increased the auto-switch recycling incentive from $2 to $4 per switch. The program also offered a $100 “first bucket bonus” to auto recyclers who had not recycled auto switches in several years. The incentives increased collection rates. Based on these results, PSI recommended that ELVS increase the incentive in Illinois, which operates under an EPR law.
We provide public outreach support to our members and partners across the U.S. We have developed posters, informational mailings, and other outreach materials to boost auto switch recycling.
How You Can Help
Contact PSI for technical or legislative support, program evaluation services, and educational resources.
Share PSI’s webinar about EPR programs for auto switches and other hazardous products with HHW program managers, contractors, and local government officials. The webinar explains how to increase access to these programs in rural communities.
If you run a scrap yard, auto recycling facility, or work in the auto industry, enroll in the National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery program to start recycling mercury switches.