Unlike in past decades, the dangers of mercury exposure are well known today. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, mercury is used as a component in many consumer products, like thermometers, batteries, and electronic devices, and can escape as a pollutant when these products are manufactured, broken during use, or, perhaps most importantly, incorrectly handled and disposed of at the end of the product’s useful life. Mercury pollution becomes a serious threat when it settles into oceans and waterways, where it builds up in fish before it’s often consumed by people. When mercury enters the human body it acts as a neurotoxin, harming the brain and nervous system. Mercury poisoning has been known to cause memory loss, tremors, and vision loss, and it can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure.

Since 1998, the Thermostat Recycling Corp. (TRC) has worked to collect thermostats containing mercury and properly dispose of the harmful substance by using HVAC wholesalers as collection points for contractors. “It’s a simple reverse distribution system,” said Mark Tibbetts, executive director, TRC. “Contractors are bringing products back to distributors.”

TRC’s 2014 Mercury Recovery Index (MRI) report showed a 13 percent increase in total U.S. collections last year. Additionally, TRC has added more than 1,400 new wholesaler collection sites to the program since January 2014.

According to Christyn Zehnder, director of marketing and communications, TRC, it’s all part of TRC’s strategy to promote awareness and keep the recycling program top of mind.

“Our national strategy focuses mainly on the HVAC industry. We want to saturate the market with our brand to keep the program top of mind. We enhance program awareness through various media advertisements. We also have a robust Google adware campaign, and we are very active on social media, as well.”

Additionally, the TRC staff is scheduling more site visits and reaching out to wholesaler partners via phone calls and postcards. So far this year, TRC staff has visited 665 program collection sites, called more than 1,000 collection sites, and mailed more than 4,800 postcards. And it’s working — bin returns are up by 22 percent so far this year, Tibbetts noted.


In order to gain more program awareness, TRC partnered with Heating, Air-conditioning, and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI) to launch the Big Man on Planet (BMOP) competition in 2012 to see who could collect the most thermostats.

“I think all strong businesses thrive on competition, and the continued rampant growth in BMOP demonstrates that,” said Talbot Gee, CEO, HARDI. “TRC gives the winners great exposure and recognition at our annual conference, where more than 1,200 of their peers can witness their accomplishments. This also ramps up the competitive juices within the audience each year and produces a continually growing response.

“It’s simply the right thing to do, and the extraordinary performance of our distributor members continues to reinforce the value and power of the wholesale distributor within the HVACR supply chain,” Gee continued.

It’s also important for those in leadership roles to get involved, because employees pay attention to their employer’s actions and attitudes, noted Emily Saving, vice president, professional and program development, HARDI. “They notice what you do, and also notice what you fail to do. You have a responsibility, by virtue of your position, to ‘walk the talk.’ Mercury recycling is a great example. Why should you expect your employees to care enough to act if you don’t? Further, you cannot ignore the importance of environmental commitment to your customer groups, and the data shows this is a value that is only strengthening with younger generations.”

The 2014 BMOP competition recovered more than 252 pounds of mercury. Johnstone Supply Inc., winners in 2013 and 2014, recovered 28,973 thermostats last year after a nationwide campaign to make more than 380 independently owned locations into thermostat recycling centers.

“It’s the right thing to do for the environment and our business,” said Jeff Schultz, product manager, controls, air, and IAQ, Johnstone Supply. “A minute amount of mercury introduced into a waste stream can cause catastrophic damage to water sources. We take that seriously.”

This year, Johnstone Supply is attempting to boost contractor participation with a nationwide contest during the month of September. Partnering with Honeywell Intl. Inc., the wholesale distributor is offering flat-screen televisions as prizes at each location. Contractors gain entries by recycling mercury thermostats, purchasing a new Honeywell thermostat, or by entering online with no purchase necessary.

“We’re focusing on manufacturer partners, like Honeywell, that actively support and contribute to Thermostat Recycling Corporation,” Schultz said. “We’re working to get all of the old technology off the walls and replace it with new technology that, when used properly, can contribute to energy efficiency, as well. This as an opportunity for customers to engage homeowners on energy-efficient solutions. Recycling of outdated mercury thermostats is really a starting point of the conversation.”


Mark Callendar, director, ServiceMark Heating, Cooling & Plumbing, Exton, Pennsylvania, has been in involved with TRC’s program through three different companies since 2008. “It’s good for the environment. I have three kids, and anything we do to decrease the amount of pollution entering the Earth is the right thing to do. We all have to play a part. Nobody really thought about it because it [thermostats] contained such a small amount of mercury, but it really doesn’t take that much to become a pollutant.”

According to Callendar, when he first started participating in TRC’s program, older technicians brought in three mason jars filled with mercury. “Some of the older technicians would cut the capsules open and save it. They knew it was wrong to throw away, but they put it in a jar in a van. It was like, ‘holy mackerel – you’re driving around with a time bomb.’ It’s interesting because you really realize the weight of the mercury at that point, how heavy it really is.”

Recycling mercury thermostats is the right thing to do for the customer, as well, Callendar noted, explaining how the program gave him a little bit of a green edge and helped convince customers to move to digital thermostats.

Even though numbers are decreasing, ServiceMark still recycles about 1,400-1,500 mercury thermostats every year.

“You can see how this program has worked and moved people away from the mercury thermostats,” Callendar said. “It’s a great program. They make it so easy that it’s a no-brainer.”

Rochester, New York-based Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning has been recycling mercury thermostats through TRC for the past eight years. Greg Goater, training and safety director, explained that recycling is just part of Isaac’s culture. The company recycles refrigerants, metals, cardboard, office paper, and even mercury vapor contained in cycle pilot furnaces.

“If it winds up in a landfill as solid waste, it’s toxic — although some places around here, they incinerate that stuff,” Goater said. “It leaches into the groundwater and into the lakes, rivers, and streams. We’re on Lake Ontario here, which is a Great Lake, and, for many years, we’ve had to deal with chemical dumping, including mercury. Consequently, there are fish in our waters between certain sizes that you can’t eat because they have a high concentration of mercury. Being on a Great Lake, we’ve been aware of mercury getting into the water system for a long time.”

Goater agrees the number of recycled thermostats is decreasing, but said Isaac has recycled about 200 mercury thermostats so far this year.

Goater also noted that contractors, as a rule, should be participating in recycling mercury thermostats because of the nature of their businesses. “HVAC contractors are out there selling high-efficiency equipment for obvious reasons, the profit is better than it is on standard stuff. They’re out there promoting it with the idea you’re going to reduce your fuel cost and this mantra that people use these days about reducing your carbon footprint. Well, if you’re really serious about reducing your carbon footprint, it seems pretty silly to me and inconsistent if you were to dump mercury in a landfill someplace, which, in New York, is illegal to do. You can’t be out there talking about reducing your carbon footprint on one hand and dumping mercury in a landfill on the other hand.

“When you talk to people of a certain age, they talk about how they used to play with mercury when they were kids,” Goater continued. “They rolled it around in their hand, used to coat dimes with mercury, and just played with the stuff. People kind of laugh about how it can’t be that bad if we did it as kids. And the comment Ryan Kiscaden [of TRC] always makes is, ‘Yeah, but would you let your grandkids do that?’ And, obviously, the answer is no. Sometimes you have to make people understand the stuff is bad for the environment and your health. It’s extremely dangerous and toxic to pregnant women and children, and you sure as heck wouldn’t let anybody play with the stuff today.”

Publication date: 8/31/2015

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