Busting Myths
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Busting Myths

Posted May 29, 2018

Busting Myths About Recycling Mercury Containing Thermostats

In the business of recycling mercury containing thermostats, I find myself frequently playing the role of myth buster. This is no surprise to those in the business world. Outsiders have an opinion of a “truism” that applies to one’s industry, which when judged objectively simply isn’t so, or the view held represents only part of the story.

During a conversation with a former industry journalist, he asked me a question that is standard fare for anyone working in the media: “What are the most common myths in your industry?”

My answers hopefully dispel some of the myths associated with my industry. These include:

Myth 1: Financial incentives work to drive consumers and businesses to recycle thermostats.

The Reality: The reality is that financial incentives do not drive behavioral change — recycling mercury containing thermostats, in my case — and the evidence proves it. I would suggest that financial incentives reward people who would have recycled a mercury containing thermostat with or without the lure of monetary gain.

Here’s one example. A major wholesaler launched a campaign to recycle mercury containing thermostats. The prize was significant.

One would presume that for the contest period, the number of recycled thermostats would surge. You would have increases in number from the wholesaler running the contest and an “average” number being recycled by competitors. The reality is that the overall number remained the same. Yes, the contest-sponsoring wholesaler’s numbers soared, but the nonparticipating wholesalers’ units fell dramatically. The evidence suggests a shift in the stream of who recycled the thermostats that favored a contest-driven wholesaler, while crimping the contributions from other distributors.

This identical situation occurred in another area of the country when a collection location sponsored a doubling of the incentive, from $5 to $10 per unit. Predictably, numbers rose with this location but declined with other wholesalers. Overall number of recycled thermostats: Again, little change.

On the surface, it would appear that incentives work in these examples because the contest-sponsoring wholesalers recycled more units. I’m suggesting that it simply moved the number of recycled units from a broader participating base to a smaller one, usually a single location that was the sponsor.

If financial incentives worked, there should have been an increase in collections across the board, instead of the funneling process, which shifted the origin of where the units came from but never actually resulted in the collection of more thermostats.  Financial incentives are a zero-sum game.

Does this mean are no financial incentives could drive change? It does not. If we were to offer a $1,000 rebate for every mercury containing thermostat, I suspect there would be a rush to recycle. I would also bet people would start scouring dump sites of HVAC contractors. The point is that rebates as an incentive must be sound, basing it on the premise that it makes fiduciary sense. You don’t have a program that is so expensive to fulfill that you bankrupt yourself. What I am suggesting is that, yes, there is a tipping point at which incentives work, but generally the amount is beyond the economic resources of whomever is sponsoring the effort. Thus, in the real world, I still maintain that financial incentives don’t work in our slice of the recycling industry.

The other element regarding incentives is that if a “perfect” financial incentive works — that is, one that has a significant increase in the number of recycled thermostats — how do you discover it? Testing is the classic and correct answer, but that could take years to uncover that perfect number, if it is a number (a dollar reward) and not a change in messaging or motivations. And to assess that theory, it would be necessary to conduct a test against the backdrop of a diminishing pool of mercury containing thermostats. The simplest test sample, of course, is the well-known A/B split. The same offer is made to the same pool of people with only one variation to see which makes a statistically significant impact. Given the nature of our national footprint and the differences in states dealing with the issue (mandates versus nonmandated, for example), creates a firm roadblock in finding that “perfect” monetary incentive.

Myth 2: There are plenty of mercury containing thermostats out there.

Reality: We don’t know. The evidence suggests otherwise. People believe in the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot. Do these creatures exist? They do for some people.

Here are the facts. A utility company in northern Illinois was running a million thermostat install program. They ran the program during a two-year period. They installed more than 84,000 smart thermostats. The number of mercury containing thermostats that were recycled (we know, because we partnered with the two leading installers) was 4,700 units or slightly more than 5.59 percent.

Was the effort toward recycling worth it? Of course, it’s our job to keep the environmental stream safe. But was the number of mercury containing thermostats that we uncovered an overwhelming number given the known replacement figures of 84,000? I would suggest that the number of recycled units — modest in relation to the replacement of new, smart thermostats — is a strong indicator that the quantity of remaining thermostats is far more modest than many think.

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A final word. At TRC, we are serious about our mission, and I repeat it endlessly: removing mercury containing thermostats from the environmental stream. Sometimes those in the legislative branch or the environmental world hint that we’re not doing enough or that our pace isn’t quick enough. We are more than persistent in our efforts. I remember telling a potential new hire that I wanted her to think of recycling 24/7. OK, in retrospect, that might have been a bit excessive. But I believe you understand. Time, staff, funding and simply trying to discover and gauge what works best is problematic at best. But it is a mission that we pursue relentlessly.