New Maine Times news story
A new report released this week shows that Maine’s program for collecting mercury thermostats is keeping the toxic heavy metal out of the trash and the environment, out-performing almost every other state in the nation.
In most other states, weaker laws have spelled failure for the thermostat-recycling program, says the report by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Multi-state Mercury Products Campaign (MMPC) and Product Stewardship Institute.
Strong requirements and a $5 incentive payment, or “bounty” paid to homeowners and service professionals who return qualifying thermostats in Maine, are driving up in-state collection rates. Maine and Vermont are the only states that require a financial incentive to be paid to residents who return old thermostats for recycling. The report shows that $5 bounty is working.
Although Maine’s program is among the strongest in the country, the thermostat industry is still falling short of the state’s goals. Only about 25 percent of the thousands of thermostats removed from the walls of Maine homes each year are recycled. Performance in other states is even worse; this has resulted in the disposal of more than 50 tons of mercury into the environment nationwide, which can expose people to the neurotoxin through fish consumption.
“Old thermostats represent a large amount of potential mercury pollution, threatening wildlife,” said David C. Evers, executive director and chief scientist at Biodiversity Research Institute in Gorham. “This toxic heavy metal accumulates in wildlife and harms their chances at healthy reproduction. Maine people are affected too â due to mercury contamination levels, state health officials warn pregnant women, women of childbearing age and young children to avoid eating fish caught in all of Maine’s inland waters.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 200,000 and 460,000 infants are born in the United States each year with mercury levels that are associated with the loss of IQ. This is due primarily to maternal consumption of mercury-contaminated fish. Twenty-seven states have statewide advisories for all of their freshwater lakes and rivers, and 13 states have statewide advisories for all of their coastal waters, due to mercury pollution.
“Maine’s thermostat program shows the kind of success we can achieve when manufacturers share responsibility for capturing and recycling toxic products in the waste stream,” said Abby King, toxics policy advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
But more needs to be done. Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project, said “Few people know there is a $5 incentive for them to recycle their old thermostats safely. In order to make the program work better, manufacturers need to step up the publicity and let Mainers know.”
Mercury containing thermostats are a significant source of preventable mercury pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has conservatively estimated that 2 million to 3 million thermostats come out of service each year nationally, amounting to 7 to 10 tons of mercury annually. Each thermostat contains an average of 4 grams of mercury.
A report of the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC), a voluntary program created by manufacturers, estimated the thermostat-collection rates per capita for each state in 2009 through 2011. Results showed that nationally, TRC collected only 5.8 to 8 percent of the mercury thermostats coming out of service from 2002 to 2011.
In addition, of the 10 states with laws requiring mercury thermostat collection, only two â Maine and Vermont â had programs that were significantly more effective than states with no program at all. The Maine and Vermont programs require that manufacturers pay $5 to contractors and homeowners who return mercury-added thermostats, resulting in significantly higher collection rates.
After Maine’s $5 incentive went into effect, the state headed to the top of the pack. “It’s clear that a financial incentive, coupled with good education and outreach, has resulted in Maine having one of the highest per-capita thermostat-collection rates in the country,” said King.
Since Maine and Vermont have implemented their bounty systems, legislation has been introduced in other states in recent years that would require that thermostat manufacturers provide a similar incentive for the return of a thermostat. However, the outcomes have varied. In some states, such as Massachusetts, Connecticut,and Texas, manufacturers have countered by aggressively promoting bills that would do little more than require a continuation of the weak TRC program.
In 2006, Maine enacted the first comprehensive mercury-thermostat-collection law in the nation. Maine also prohibits the sale of new thermostats containing mercury. Over the last 16 years, mercury use in U.S. thermostat manufacturing has reduced from between 15 and 21 tons annually to less than 1 ton per year. This dramatic drop can be attributed, in large part, to the passage of legislation in Maine and 14 other states banning the sale of new mercury thermostats. In the face of shrinking market availability for their mercury products, Honeywell announced in 2006 that it would end production of mercury thermostat switches, and the other large manufacturers have followed suit.
However, taking mercury thermostats off the market is only part of the solution. Tens of millions of mercury thermostats containing several hundred tons of mercury are still in use in U.S. homes and businesses. The mercury in a thermostat will pollute the air, land, or water if not managed properly at the end of its useful life. Given that thermostats can last for decades, the vast reservoir of mercury currently on walls in U.S. homes will be making its way into landfills and incinerators for years to come â unless effective collection programs are put in place.