The Problem: Volume, Toxicity, Cost

Mercury is a persistent bioaccumulative toxic (PBT) substance that persists in the environment once released and bioaccumulates up the food chain. Products that contain mercury are often not labeled and many pounds of mercury are unknowingly and improperly disposed into landfills, incinerators and wastewater treatment facilities. 

Mercury is highly conductive and exists as a liquid at room temperature. Mercury has been used in many household and commercial products such as electrical switches and relays, thermostats, fluorescent tubes and high intensity discharge lamps, dental amalgam, batteries, measuring instruments (barometers, thermometers, etc.), pharmaceuticals, paint produced before 1992, and laboratory and medical equipment.

Volume: According to the U.S. EPA, emissions estimates of annual global mercury emissions from all sources, natural and anthropogenic (human-generated), which are highly uncertain, are about 5,000-8,000 metric tons per year.

Toxicity: Mercury is poisonous to humans and other species, it affects the brain, kidneys and liver and can damage the central nervous system, especially during fetal and childhood development. Mercury vaporizes, moving between water, air and soil as a result of natural and human activities. Human exposure occurs most frequently by eating mercury-contaminated fish.

Cost: In an attempt to keep mercury and other toxic wastes out of the garbage, many communities offer costly household hazardous waste programs. But these programs are only successful if the public uses them – at the same time, the more the public uses them, the more they cost. So government agencies are caught between running expensive, successful programs and having mercury in the waste stream.

Product Stewardship Solutions

Product stewardship solutions for products that contain mercury include sharing the costs of managing this chemical between manufacturers, government agencies and consumers and managing the chemical before it enters the waste stream. Solutions include:

  • phasing out the use of mercury in products;
  • redesigning products to contain less mercury;
  • requiring manufacturers to disclose to the public that their products contain mercury;
  • labeling products that contain mercury; and
  • establishing product take-back and retirement programs

Consumers can voice their concerns by requesting mercury-free products from the manufacturer and by making informed purchasing decisions.

Design: Manufacturers can design products without mercury. Cost effective mercury-free products already exist: digital thermometers, alcohol (red bulb) thermometers, electronic thermostats, LED lamps, electronic switches, automotive switches and headlights, mechanical switches, medical devices and composite fillings.

Take Back: Manufacturers can take back products that contain mercury at the end of their lives. Many retailers offer mercury-containing lighting take back programs. Mercury thermometer exchanges have been conducted with pharmacies, hospitals and clinics in partnership with local governments. EPA, industry, and other stakeholders collaborated on the National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program. Manufacturers fund the Thermostat Recycling Corporation, which facilitates the recycling of used, mercury-switch thermostats.

Illinois Legislation: On July 1, 2008, the State of Illinois joined several other states in prohibiting the sale and distribution of new mercury-switch thermostats that are used to activate heating and cooling equipment in buildings.   The Mercury Thermostat Collection Act was passed in 2010, which requires thermostat manufacturers to establish collection programs for recycling mercury-switch thermostats when they are taken out-of-service.    This act was enacted to minimize mercury from entering the environment, of which wall mounted mercury-switch thermostats are a major source of mercury. 

The key provisions fo the mercury switch collection law include:

  • Bans the disposal of mercury-switch thermostats in solid waste intended for disposal in a sanitary landfill, beginning July 1, 2011.
  • Requires heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) contractors or service technicians to recycle mercury-switch thermostats that are taken out of service, beginning July 1, 2011.
  • Requires thermostat wholesalers to act as a collection point for out-of-service mercury thermostats, beginning July 1, 2011.  Thermostat wholesalers not participating in the program are prohibited from selling or distributing thermostats.

For a current list of thermostat collection sites, visit the Thermostat Recycling Corporation.