More than a quarter million mercury thermostats are in use in Rhode Island and will need to be safely recycled, according to a study by Clean Water Action Rhode Island and the National Resources Defense Council. Rhode Island Public Radio’s environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza joined Morning Edition host Elisabeth Harrison in the studio to share why Clean Water Action would like to see the state's Department of Environmental Management implement more aggressive collection and recycling goals for mercury thermostats.
Back in 1998, the Conference of the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers approved a mercury action plan to reduce potential health risks attributable to mercury exposures. Natural sources of mercury exist in the environment, but studies that showed high concentrations of mercury in the atmosphere and sediments prompted efforts to create this mercury action plan. That research suggested human activity was responsible for the significant increase in mercury levels in the environment.
The regional goals of this mercury action plan included to reduce mercury emissions from burning coal, trash, medical waste, and sludge; to eliminate or reduce the use of mercury in household, institutional, and industrial products and processes; to raise awareness about the health and environmental impacts of mercury and ways to reduce the risk of exposure; and to educate people and companies about products that contain mercury, and recommend appropriate substitutes and proper ways to manage and recycle these products.
The General Assembly passed the Rhode Island Mercury Reduction and Education Act in 2001. The law requires phasing out products with mercury, prohibits throwing them away in the trash (they must be recycled), and bans the future sales of products with mercury. The law focused on collecting and recycling light switches in cars and other auto parts that contain mercury, and pushing companies to develop these products without mercury. In 2010, the General Assembly added mercury thermostats as the last group of mercury-containing products to go after. The Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC) is the company charged with collecting and recycling mercury thermostats.
The DEM has three years of data on the amount of mercury thermostats collected in Rhode Island by the TRC. In 2010, the goal was to collect 2,000 mercury thermostats; 1,400 (about 10 pounds of mercury) were collected. In 2012, the goal was to collect 2,250; 1,550 (about 12 pounds of mercury) were collected. In 2013, the collection goal was 2,500; 2,600 (more than 18 pounds of mercury) were collected.
The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) also recycles products with mercury at its Eco Depot. The mercury thermostats collected at the Eco Depot are not included among the thermostats collected by TRC. The TRC did not respond to interview requests by RIPR.
Contractors and those rehabilitating old buildings tend to be the first ones to spot and replace old mercury thermostats, according to the DEM's Beverly Migliore.
People can also locate a Thermostat Recycling Corporation collection bin by entering their zip codes here.
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