Mercury Is Falling After 20 Years
Mercury from products put into the waste stream is declining. Recently, this public health issue has been best highlighted with the revision of guidelines of certain fish consumption. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) along with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have loosened these guidelines with the implication being that the source of mercury contamination from these sources has decreased. The fish consumption guideline changes may indirectly reflect the findings of the Interstate Mercury Education and Reduction Clearinghouse (IMERC). In 2010, IMERC provided data on the use of mercury sold in products in the U.S. The graphs illustrated devices such as switches/relays, dental amalgam, lamps, batteries and thermostats. The juxtaposition of these two pie charts compared 2001 to 2010. As highlighted in the thermostat slice, there was a noticeable change in mercury in thermostats during this time period as a percentage of the overall pie. In fact, IMERC published that by 2007, mercury use in the production of thermostats was basically nonexistent1. According to IMERC’s fact sheet, “There are non-mercury alternatives that may be suitable for replacing mercury thermostats. Programmable thermostats can save energy and money, by enabling users to automatically adjust the temperature or turn off the heat or air conditioning depending on the time of day.” Logically, any decline in thermostat collections can be explained with these overarching constraints.
Looking specifically at the TRC collection data, there has been an irrefutable downward trend in thermostats (on the average) inside the program’s recycling containers. What’s more is the program’s national collections peaked by 2014. At that time, the program would have been in operation at least seven years from last production (2007) of mercury containing thermostats. Or at the beginning of the decline of mercury thermostat production which would have been 10 years (2004). Thus, the further TRC moves from the range of mercury thermostat production (2004-2007), the less the program can reasonably expect to collect since these collected products are fungible. This past year’s mercury thermostat collections do, in fact, demonstrate a decline (-2% less than 2016 nationally) 2. Despite the obvious softening of collections, TRC has recycled more than 2.1 million thermostats, diverting more than 10 tons of mercury from the ecosystem across 48 contiguous states, all within these twenty short years of operation. This is quite an incredible feat.
Amidst the resulting decline in collections, how does the program collect devices that were once widespread in use, do not have a downstream recycled commodity market, and are not uniformly tracked following purchase and installation? The only answer is that you focus on deploying precious resources at targeting the best opportunities within the most promising sectors. You use data, hunches, or metrics. You choose to focus on where there have been consistent numbers inside of the recycling containers and you lean on the stakeholders that make the program a success. In 20 years of operation, we have learned that stakeholders such as the regulatory community, our paying members, the collection points, and vendors hold the keys to our success as an organization. Without them, we do not have a successful recycling program, nor does the environment. Utility driven thermostat replacement programs, the installing HVAC industry, and the waste recycling sector consistently demonstrate that they can stimulate these devices for recycling and are willing actors. To pursue other channels has proven to be inefficient and ineffective. We plan to stay vigilant in the face of the changing thermostat product adoption cycles and the evolving market forces. The reality is that these focuses are not dissimilar to where the program started twenty years ago. These core values of TRC will not and have not changed. No longer is mercury rising and we are proud to willingly have participated in its decline.