TRC Blog

Thanks to Public & Private Partnerships ELVS Has Left the Building

Posted May 10, 2017

In its April 1, 2017 report on Mercury, U.S. Inventory Report: Supply, Use and Trade, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that since 1980, the use of mercury in products sold in the United States has decreased more than 97 percent. This is quite an achievement and it was not arrived at easily.  It took the hard work of federal and state environmental programs working with industry and non-governmental organizations to get there. It also reflects how much can be achieved when public-private partnerships are allowed to work hand-in-hand with the regulatory process.

Bracketing this reduction in the use of mercury in products lies in the fact that the law prohibits the re-introduction of mercury to commerce. The Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008 (MEBA) prohibits federal agencies from conveying, selling or distributing elemental mercury except to another federal agency to facilitate long-term management and storage.  What this means is that the 5,635 metric tons of mercury are stockpiled and held at the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy in long-term storage cannot re-enter commerce. Ever.

Our story focuses on what exists in the middle.Those products that were manufactured prior to 2006 and contained small amounts of mercury and are now being systematically removed as newer non-mercury-containing devices replace them. For the purpose of this article, we are specifically referring to automotive switches and thermostats.

More than a decade ago, the automotive sector replaced mercury-containing trunk lid switches with non-mercury ones.They also entered into an agreement with the EPA, the Iron and Steel industry, the scrap recycling industry, the Environmental Council of States and non-governmental organizations securing their commitment to work with these parties to reduce the amount of mercury in the vehicle recycling stream thereby reducing mercury releases to the environment.  They established a National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program to work with their established collection system called the End-of-life Vehicle Solutions or ELVS.

At about the same time, thermostat manufacturers removed mercury from their devices and established the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC), a non-profit stewardship organization that facilitates and manages the collection and proper disposal of mercury-containing thermostats. Its goal is straightforward: keep mercury out of the waste stream in order to protect the environment. 

These two programs not only share the same history and purpose, they also share the same challenges.  Namely, how does one collect devices that were once widespread in use, are worthless or illegal as a recycled commodity, and not uniformly tracked following purchase and installation. The answer is that you focus less on refining estimates speaking to the number of these products still out there, and more on shaking every tree within the most promising sectors. That means employing every reasonable effort necessary to find and recycle as many of these devices as possible. Over time, the number of devices collected will naturally decline.

Like the ELVS program, public and private partnerships are making mercury thermostat collections a problem that is going away.