By Ramona du Houx

April 3, 2013

A new report released today by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Multi-state Mercury Products Campaign (MMPC), and Product Stewardship Institute, shows that Maine’s manufacturer-run 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 and industry spin tactics have spelled failure for the thermostat recycling program.

“It’s proof-positive that product stewardship works; and that it’s working best in Maine because of our bounty system,” said Abby King, Toxics Policy Advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “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.”

Turning up the Heat II, reveals that 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. 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 estimated 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.

Maine is one of two states that require a financial incentive to be paid to residents who return old thermostats for recycling. The report released today shows that $5 bounty is working; Maine collects more thermostats per capita than all but one of the other states with a program.

“For decades, companies like Honeywell, White-Rodgers and General Electric profited from the sale of mercury thermostats. Thanks to strong laws in Maine, the recycling program there is having some success. However, more needs to be done,” said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project. “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 (EPA) has conservatively estimated that 2 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.

“Old thermostats represent a large amount of potential mercury pollution threatening wildlife,” said David C. Evers, Ph.D., executive director and chief scientist at Biodiversity Research Institute in Gorham, ME. “This toxic heavy metal accumulates in wildlife and harms their chances at healthy reproduction. Maine people are affected too – 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.”

Turning up the Heat II used data from the annual report of the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC), a voluntary program created by manufacturers, to estimate 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—Maine and Vermont—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 up to the top of the pack.

“Improper disposal of mercury-containing thermostats is an industry problem. Yet, rather than taking on the responsibility and being leaders, thermostat manufacturers have shirked from the opportunity to publicize the program and educate Maine consumers about how to recycle,” said Scott Cassel, chief executive officer of the Product Stewardship Institute. “They’ve made very little effort across the country to increase collection rates. Industry may say that they’ve already stepped up to the plate on the issue, but they haven’t yet swung the bat.”

Thermostat manufacturers routinely spin the data to highlight increases in thermostat collection while obscuring the fact that very few thermostats were still collected. For example: TRC describes the Texas program as a huge success story because it collected over 400% more in 2011 than 2009. However, the Texas program collected fewer than 5,000 thermostats in 2011, while the Maine program collected 6,600 in the same year with a population 20 times smaller!

In 2010, MMPC released the first edition of Turning up the Heat, which evaluated 2008 collection data and found dismal collection rates in states without a bounty program like Maine’s. Turning Up the Heat II shows that little improvement has been made in the three years since, and that the two best programs are still those with financial incentives – Maine and Vermont.

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.

“The ‘Trojan horse’ strategy of promoting weak legislation that is known to be ineffective is irresponsible business practice on the part of thermostat manufacturers,” said Elizabeth Saunders, Massachusetts director for Clean Water Action. “Mercury pollution is a serious public health threat and it’s time that legislators, regulators and manufacturers turn up the heat on thermostat collection and get the job done.”

In 2006, with the backing of the Baldacci administration 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 sixteen 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—unless effective collection programs are put in place.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 200,000 and 460,000 infants are born in the U.S. 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 fresh water lakes and rivers, and 13 states have statewide advisories for all of their coastal waters, due to mercury pollution.

“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.