Unintended Consequences of the Mercury Thermostat Recycling Process
TRC News

We Get the Damnedest Things in Our Bins

Posted Oct 5, 2018

While I was attending a conference recently, a fellow attendee asked me an unusual question: Do you get any weird stuff in all those green bins that you have scattered throughout the country?

My friend is familiar with the nonprofit I lead, Thermostat Recycling Corp., which recycles mercury-containing thermostats — a well-documented hazardous waste — which we obtain through collection bins throughout the contiguous United States.

I replied: “Did you know that certain radioactive smoke detectors look very similar to the round T87 mercury thermostats we intend to collect?  The similarities have become very apparent due to the sheer number we collect in our bins, but they are not the only non-thermostat (or noncompliant) products that end up our containers.” The implication was that yes, we receive unintended, noncompliant materials in our recycling bins. Then I told him the rat story.

This comes up whenever someone asks, “what’s the weirdest thing ever sent in a recycle bin?” A wholesaler sent along a dusty, closed container that they ignored for a long time. When it arrived at our recycling center, there was a very dead rat inside. There was no funeral ceremony for the rat.

Less shocking is our straightforward recycling process. About 94 percent of our green bins are available in HVAC wholesale or retail locations (the remainder are in other collection locations like hazardous waste collection centers), which serve as a drop-off point for contractors who are tradespeople who replace them when installing a new unit. The wholesaler ships the container to our recycling center, in Port Washington, Wisconsin, at least once a year or whenever it is full and ideally with only mercury-containing thermostats. There, specially trained employees remove it and safely store it, awaiting a final government-mandated resting place. (As an element, mercury cannot be destroyed.) Our service is free, funded by former manufacturers of mercury containing thermostats.

We have a seemingly simple straight-forward process that should work smoothly. But in business, as in life, there are always unanticipated events.

We designated these bins for mercury-containing thermostats, items that anyone over the age of 40 is probably familiar with. Sometimes contractors drop off other mercury-related items that include thermometers (lots of those), lamps, dental amalgam, batteries or even loose mercury. These too get ship to our recycling center, and our vendor, Veolia, must deal with these items both separately and differently to extract the mercury. We pay a fee for this. It isn’t onerous, and we do so because it’s mercury and it requires the appropriate recycling attention.

I would speculate some contractors are unaware of this and don’t realize that our financial obligation stops with mercury-containing thermostats. Others might not care; their only concern is that someone disposes of it safely. We are conscious of our stewardship role and will continue to do our part to keeping the environment safer even if it’s technically outside our mandate.

Then there is the other type of content that might cause one to look at it with a touch of humor. Our recycler finds trash, candy bars, and for some odd reason, lots of potato chip bags. I would speculate that because our bins are often near the door, contractors can leave items without anyone paying close attention (in fairness, it does look like a waste bin). They take a shot, secretly score two points and they’re out the door, while their potato chip bag heads for Wisconsin.

Sometimes unintended consequences can be horrific, even bringing a company down. Our unintended consequences are much milder. That we sometimes pay for a noncompliant item is a charge we’re willing to absorb. That we, or more accurately, our recycling center must play the role of garbage collector, well, it’s a minor nuisance for them. It keeps the process going. Since our move to Veolia as our processing partner in 2017, about 38 percent of our bins contained noncompliant materials.

The small business lesson here is that there are always unintended consequences, some serious, some irritating and a few downright funny. For us, as long as we keep collecting and recycling thermostats, we’re OK with our personal version of unintended consequences.