How To Dispose Of Mercury-Bulb Thermostats

March 20, 2002
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ROSSLYN, VA — When you remove a customer’s old mercury-bulb thermostat, do you think about recycling the mercury in that bulb? Do you wish you could recycle it, but you don’t know how?

Your options have expanded. Thermostat Recycling Corp.’s (TRC’s) collection services are available in all of the lower 48 states, according to executive director Ric Erdheim.

The collection service has been available for four years. That’s long enough for technicians, contractors, and wholesalers to need a reminder of how it works — and how to bring it to a wholesaler near you.

TRC also announced that it has recovered more than 1,060 lb of mercury from nearly 123,000 used mercury-switch thermostats since it began operation in January, 1998. In 2001 alone, the recycling company has collected more than 48,000 thermostats and processed more than 400 lb of mercury. This represents a 52% increase in thermostats, and a 57% increase in mercury collected during 2000, according to the company.

Mercury at high enough levels can cause health problems, including neurological problems, says Erdheim. “Handling a mercury thermostat won’t result in high exposure,” he adds. “The mercury needs to get into the environment [through incineration], then into the food chain.” The worst results occur when mercury gets into bodies of water, then into fish.

“Some areas are much better in compliance than others,” says Erdheim. Great Lakes states were some of the first involved in the program, and they have higher compliance. Erdheim agrees that this could be associated with the population’s higher awareness of mercury contamination in water and the fish caught from it.

MORE INVOLVEMENT IS NEEDED

“We need the wholesalers to sign up for the program,” he says, “and the contractors to bring the mercury thermostats back in” for disposal.

Participating wholesalers are indicated on the company’s website. If there are no local participating wholesalers, contractors need to ask their wholesalers to sign up. One of the most effective ways to do this, says Erdheim, is through contractor associations or buying groups.

“We get a lot of assistance through the Air Conditioning Contractors of America,” Erdheim says. “They are continuing to work with us.”

However, not everyone who installs or sells mercury thermostats belongs to ACCA, or will come across publication of the program through mainstream or trade media.

“The biggest block to participation is that they don’t know about the program,” Erdheim says. “Or, they may be strongly focused on their business and don’t care much for mercury disposal. Finally, there may not be a conveniently located wholesaler disposal drop site.

“That’s where word of mouth comes into play,” he continues. “Contractors who know about the program need to spread the word to their staff and to other companies. They need to ask their wholesalers to get involved in the program if they’re not already.”

HOW IT WORKS

Under this voluntary, industry-sponsored program, hvac contractors can drop off used mercury-switch thermostats — no matter what brand — at participating wholesalers.

Wholesalers collect the thermostats in protective bins supplied by TRC. As of July 1, 2001, there were roughly 1,200 TRC containers in hvac wholesale outlets across the United States. A list of participating wholesalers, current as of January 1, 2002, can be accessed at www.nema.org/trc (website).

When the bins are full, wholesalers send them to the TRC’s recycling center; TRC removes the switches and forwards them to a mercury recycler. All the serious mercury handling is done by TRC and the recycler.

TRC focuses on heating and air conditioning contractors and wholesalers, says Erdheim, because they sell and install the majority of thermostats. Also, the industry already has an infrastructure (the wholesalers) to support an effective collection program.

TRC encourages wholesalers to participate in the program and contractors, for whom the program is free, to take used mercury-switch thermostats to participating wholesalers. The wholesalers only pay a one-time, $15 fee per collection container. The TRC pays for all of the shipping, processing, and mercury recovery costs.

Some local governments have separate programs in place to manage recycling or disposal of used thermostats directly from homeowners. Homeowners can contact their local hazardous waste management office for more information. But homeowners generally are less informed than contractors about mercury disposal.

“Some just aren’t interested,” says Erdheim. “But in most cases where we’ve gotten the word out, we’re doing well.”

Sidebar: Mercury Collection Numbers Rise

TRC began operations in nine states (Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin) and expanded its operations in January 2000 to the District of Columbia and 13 additional states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia).

By the spring of 2001, TRC was operating in all the lower 48 states. Collections have continued to grow in the original nine states and have started to increase in some of the remaining states, said executive director Ric Erdheim. The number of thermostats collected has tripled between 1998 and 2001.

Publication date: 03/25/2002

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