Household Hazardous Waste Centers Are Our Least Effective Collection Type
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Household Hazardous Waste Centers Are Our Least Effective Collection Type

Posted Oct 15, 2018 by Ryan Kiscaden

Recently, I spent some time mulling over the various sources that contribute to our recycling of mercury containing thermostats. I re-affirmed facts and issues that are part of the zeitgeist in the recycling and home hazardous waste world. In my review of how we do things, I also reaffirmed my suspicion that much of how we work and what we encounter applies to all businesses.

There is a mis-conception about where the most mercury containing thermostats come back from. This manifests itself in common questions such as “aren’t mercury thermostats in homes, hence a household hazardous waste?” We have debunked this claim many times but I’ve felt it further to explain why the household hazardous waste centers (“HHW”) do not end up with mercury containing thermostats. Mercury thermostats happen to be in homes but their replacement is tied to professional de-installation compared to say batteries or paint. Mercury thermostats are in homes but are not handled by homeowners at the end of their life.

One very pressing point is that other EPR programs are succesful in collecting their materials through HHWs.  For example, the Paintcare program spends majority of their efforts and dollars in this segment and is commonly cited as having a great program by the regulatory community.  My suspicion is that this is more about presence Paintcare’s presence in the local municipalities than their actual results and efforts.

Here are a few lessons learned along the way about the HHW segment:

Sticking like glue. Sometimes persistence pays off in promoting your environmental efforts. It took TRC two years for the Rhode Island’s Resource Recovery Center’s hauler to use our program. We had to involve government entities and our recycling company, Veolia, in our efforts to push us past the finish line. Plugging away, and politely pushing, did the trick.

Common complaints. Ever wonder why a customer or client raises what you consider to be a nonsensical complaint? Many household hazardous waste centers say there aren’t enough collected mercury thermostats to justify switching to a new program and training employees. At the risk of a cliché: It’s not rocket science. You empty the bin (containing the thermostats) into a secured shipping container, slap a prepaid label and then ship it to Port Washington, Wisconsin. (We ship by FedEx, preempting the need for a visit to a post office.) You do this once a month and you’ve protected the environment from a confirmed hazardous substance. Now realistically, how much training does that take? The lesson of course is that if it’s a “burden” through the eyes of the other person, sometimes no logic changes the situation.

Who knows why? All of us in business have that perennial head scratcher: Why would everyone NOT engage in our recycling program? There is no down side. Yet, some industry actors never hear the cue and fail to join us onstage.

For example, Illinois HHWs essentially reject our offer. I have no idea why. Flat refusal. This is where I take refuge in advice given to me by an ex-newspaper reporter. He said when confronted with the facts or motivation in a story he was writing that didn’t make sense, he determined there was only one conclusion: He lacked the information necessary to arrive at a sound judgment. Same here. I don’t know why, and maybe someone from Illinois will enlighten me. The take-away is that even persistence isn’t enough sometimes, and you might never know why.

Institutional barriers. There are some institutional barriers that exist, which is why we find HHWs are our least effective approach to recycling mercury containing thermostats. Here’s a left field example. You can’t go to Chick-fil-A on Sunday for a sandwich because they’re closed.

I strongly suspect that a fundamental barrier in the HHW is that their operating hours are not as flexible as other businesses, and they don’t have enough convenient locations.

The reverse of this is our collection supply chain. HVACR wholesalers are the main drop-off point for our recycling efforts. They are open during normal business hours, and some are also open at least part-time on Saturdays.

Indeed, the flip side of that coin are HVACR wholesalers, who have been the champions in this effort. Some began collecting mercury containing thermostats before they accepted the TRC program. These wholesalers understood the need and that a contractor was generally the person who would remove the mercury containing thermostat and replace it with a new one. The contractor is in the home, and the homeowner doesn’t have to leave the sofa to participate in the exchange. The contractor does all the replacement work and the wholesaler offers a convenient drop-off. Finally, this effort increases the positive relationship between wholesaler and contractor. Nearly perfect synchronicity.

People who know me know I love data. And since data confirm or disapprove, at TRC we find that HHWs contribute approximately 5 percent of the mercury containing thermostats collected. The HVACR industry (wholesalers and contractors) take the lead with 90 percent. (The other 5 percent are an amalgamation). The HVAC industry’s been doing the right thing and diverting mercury thermostats prior to HHWs ever receiving them, largely because they don’t accept business generated waste.

But every business program takes constant messaging. We do it through Google Alerts. TRC’s Operations and Compliance Manager, Danielle Myers has set Google Alerts for mercury containing thermostats, HHW and a few other terms. When an HHW’s upcoming event pops up, she tracks down the story to see if they’re in our program. If they are, we’re feeling quite satisfied. If not, she contacts them and introduces herself and our recycling program. With this approach, she estimates that the success rate of a nonparticipant recycling outlet joining us is about 50 percent.

And as everyone in sales knows, if you attain a 50 percent closing ratio on gaining leads, go ahead and pop the cork on the campaign.