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December 2007

Financial incentives play key role in mercury thermostat recycling pilot

The Product Stewardship Institute, Inc. (PSI) is a national non-profit organization that assists 43 states and 46 local governments. The organization recently announced the results of a two-year pilot project that tested the degree to which a financial incentive could increase the rate of mercury thermostat recycling by heating and cooling contractors in Oregon and Indiana.

The report concludes that a financial incentive can be an effective motivational tool to increase thermostat recycling for those contractors requiring additional motivation. The pilot demonstrated that the most successful results will be achieved by addressing three major factors – lack of awareness of thermostat recycling programs, an inadequate number of convenient collection locations, and insufficient motivation.

Mercury is used as a component of a mechanical tilt switch in thermostats, consisting of a glass bulb filled with inert gas and approximately three grams of mercury. Many thermostats contain more than one switch. In 1994, there were approximately 63 million mercury thermostats in use within the residential sector alone, equal to about 277 tons of mercury.

These products can lead to con-tamination when thrown in the trash, where they might be crushed, incinerated, or otherwise mismanaged in a way to cause airborne releases, after which mercury falls back to earth in rain-water. Recycling mercury-containing products is an effective way to address this problem.

“Mercury is one of the biggest health hazards found in everyday household products,” said PSI Executive Director Scott Cassel. “A significant number of mercury thermostats are being replaced now, and incentives to encourage recycling will be needed to make a program effective.”

The PSI incentive pilot was conducted for one year in Indiana and Oregon, during calendar year 2006. PSI pilot-tested an incentive in the form of a rebate off the purchase of a new non-mercury Energy Star qualified thermostat. To test different incentive amounts, the rebate was set at $4.00 in Oregon and at $3.00 in Indiana. Contractors dropping off a mercury thermostat in 2006 at a participating wholesaler received a rebate coupon for each thermostat returned.

Upon purchase of an Energy Star qualified thermostat, the contractor mailed the rebate coupon and a proof of purchase to the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC), the third-party administrator for the pilot. Once TRC verified that the thermostat purchased was eligible for the rebate, TRC mailed the contractor a check for the appropriate amount. Rebate coupons were accepted by TRC through June 30, 2007.

In Oregon, the number of mercury thermostats collected for recycling during the pilot project increased 124% from the previous year, from 2,052 to 4,587. The amount of mercury collected from thermostats increased by 139%. The number of participating wholesalers jumped from 20 to 44, which represents almost 75% of the HVAC wholesalers in the state.