Recycling Still Not as Easy as You Would Hope

Elemental Mercury 

Photo courtesy of the Nevada Divison of Environmental Protection.

In a continuing effort to make my home greener, I removed the mercury thermostat and replaced it with a digital model recently. That task was much easier than trying to find out how to properly dispose of the old thermostat.

Have you heard of The company was founded in 1991 as a hot line for recycling. Now its Web site claims to be "your one-stop shop for all you need to know about reducing your impact, reusing what you’ve got and recycling your trash."

Using my home ZIP code, I tried to find a nearby disposal center but was disappointed. The site did provide information about recycling centers but these were not nearby. I contacted the company's PR manager to find out how the site's recycling centers were populated. Jennifer Berry explained, "Our listings are submitted by retail sustainability managers, municipal solid waste coordinators, everyday citizens and others involved in disposing of various types of waste. Once submitted, information is verified by our staff and then listed on our database. To date, we have more than 110,000 listings across the U.S. (as well as some in Canada and Mexico) for more than 240 different materials." Impressive, but not complete enough for me.

My city's local household hazardous waste line told me a representative from the health department would come to my house and pick up the mercury thermostat. When Joseph Daley arrived, he explained that he was really a stormwater specialist, which in my city, is operated by the health department. He added that the city had to collect quite a few mercury-containing devices before having enough mercury for the recycling company. Go figure. I fully expected to be directed to a drop-off site– not have this kind of personal service for such a small item.

Curious about other people's experience with recycling, I posted a poll related to mercury disposal and received a comment from a site visitor that concerned me. This person said elemental mercury is not a problem when ingested; just the vapors and oxides pose a danger. Is that correct?

EPA's Web site confirms that metallic mercury primarily causes health effects when it is breathed as a vapor where it can be absorbed through the lungs. "These exposures can occur when elemental mercury is spilled or products that contain elemental mercury break and expose mercury to the air, particularly in warm or poorly-ventilated indoor spaces." Isn't the human body a poorly ventilated indoor space? (By the way, symptoms of exposure include tremors, emotional changes, insomnia, neuromuscular changes, headaches, and sensation and nerve response changes as well as deficits on tests of cognitive function. Higher exposures can cause death.)

I was determined to find out how to recycle the thermostat, but other people may not want to spend that much time on such a project. It's much easier to drop it in the trash. Cities such as mine would do well to contact directly with their recycling information so we could all access the best information quickly from a central location.

Posted by L.K. Williams, EPonline on Dec 10, 2009