by John Richardson, Press Herald writer
It’s been illegal to throw older home thermostats into the trash for the past year.
But nine out of 10 of them still end up there, eventually releasing poisonous mercury into Maine’s air and water.
Sarah Hale Krull understands why. She spent about an hour on the telephone and Internet one day this winter before finding a Portland company willing to take her old thermostat and recycle it.
“Either they get thrown away because people don’t know,” she said. “Or they get thrown away because they can’t be bothered.”>/p>
A proposal moving through Maine’s Legislature could help. If passed, manufacturers of the thermostats would pay $5 for each one recycled by Maine residents and contractors starting next year.
The focus on thermostats is the latest effort by the state to clean up the waste streaming into incinerators and landfills. Maine is among the leaders of a national trend to get toxins out of the trash.
But the state’s system for sorting household garbage can be confusing and frustrating.
“It takes some stick-with-it-ness,” said Krull, a young mother in Portland who has been updating an old home.
The thermostat proposal was endorsed last week by the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee. It is expected to be passed and signed by the governor in the coming weeks or months. While new thermostats are mercury-free, an estimated thousands of the common older ones are hanging on the walls of homes throughout the state and will someday become pieces of trash.
The thermostats are safe while on the walls. But in a waste incinerator, they release small amounts of mercury into the smokestack. In all, thermostats carry an estimated 180 pounds of mercury into incinerators and landfills per year, contributing to one of the state’s most urgent pollution problems.
Mercury, which can cause behavioral and reproductive problems, is accumulating in lakes and streams across the state, affecting birds and animals that eat tainted fish and threatening human health.
Mercury-containing fluourescent lights and old fever thermometers also must be recycled.
Other trash items also have been targeted because of different toxic chemicals. The state has a new recycling law for TVs and computer monitors, and is considering rules for cell phones, all of which contain cadmium, lead and mercury.
Each Maine town has its own way of handling the wastes, from full-time collection sites for some items to once-a-year collection events. There are different procedures for fluourescent lights than for cell phones or thermostats. Sometimes there are fees.
INFORMATION IS HARD TO FIND
Consider TVs and computers, known as “e-waste.” Some municipal transfer stations collect them every day. Some take them once or twice a year. Others simply tell residents where to find a private recycler that collects them.
Last summer, Will Peirce of Kittery tried to find out how to get rid of some old thermostats, old paint and solvents.
“I asked the guys down at the transfer station. They didn’t know,” he said.
He eventually found out he needed to hold onto them until the town’s hazardous waste collection day. He also needed to make an appointment and fill out a form. He did, but he wonders how many others would, too.
The $5 bounty for thermostats is a good step, but may not be enough to get contractors and homeowners to go through the trouble, said Peirce. “It’s not worth their time.”>/p>
Maine’s system is more complicated and inconvenient than some others, including California’s. That state last week began requiring residents to recycle a list of toxic trash items, similar to Maine’s list.
But there, each county is setting up a regional system. Residents can leave some items at the curb with their trash, while they have to take other hazardous items to central transfer stations.
“We have household hazardous waste collection places that are open every day. I guess we’re spoiled,” said Ron Baker, spokesman for California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. Some residents are even questioning why all of the new recyclables can’t be picked up at the curb, he said.
Making it easy also makes it effective, he said. “The program has to be accessible. It has to be something that’s fairly easy to do.”>/p>
There are lots of differences between Maine and California, of course. Maine’s home rule tradition is one. Money is another.
California is considering spending $4.5 million on grants to help counties set up their collection programs. And that doesn’t count the state’s intensive education campaign.
Maine’s State Planning Office, on the other hand, has no new funding available for towns. Its last toxic-trash grants went out in 2003 after voters approved $900,000 in the annual state bond referendum, said Sam Morris, senior planner with the office’s Waste Management & Recycling Program.
PRESSURE ON MANUFACTURERS
Maine is still leading many other states on the issue, especially when it comes to forcing manufacturers to foot the bill.
The thermostat plan is similar to Maine’s model programs for car switches, televisions and computers, all of which will require some manufacturer contribution.
“It’s really a good trend,” said Jon Hinck of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “I think we’re going to be in tight budgets for a very long time and this is an alternative to the taxpayers having to step up.”>/p>
The system also puts the cost back into the product, where it belongs, he said. Eventually, manufacturers will be encouraged to find cheaper and safer alternatives.
Leading thermostat manufacturers, especially Honeywell, are working with the state to create the recycling program.
The industry years ago created its own nonprofit company to promote recycling of old thermostats, and is always willing to try new solutions, said Daniel O’Donnell, Honeywell’s director of product management, environmental controls. O’Donnell said the company does not object to helping finance the efforts, but believes everyone has to be part of the solution.
“The key to this thing is just awareness,” he said. “Most homeowners don’t know if their product might have mercury in it or not.”>/p>
Maine’s collection efforts are improving, especially in more populated areas, said Hinck and other advocates. Participation is expected to increase over time, the way it did with bottles and cans.
“It’s a job of constant education and training,” Morris said. The state is working to simplify the system to improve compliance, he said. “It has to be accessible. It has to be convenient. It has to be cost effective.”>/p>
Maine communities are clearly limited by finances. And they aren’t likely to ever set up California-style central collection facilities for all of the toxic trash items, Morris said.
Although getting toxics out of the trash is difficult, he said, it’s even tougher to get them out of the environment.
“At some point, somebody’s downwind,” Morris said. “It’s much better to clean it up on the way in.”>/p>
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org