California Orders Changes to Thermostat Collection Program

Credit: Wikipedia

Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin which, like lead, interferes with normal childhood development. The health concern it poses is well-known and severe. And yet a 2009 industry study estimated the number of mercury thermostats in California to be between 5.1 million and 10.5 million. At four grams of mercury per thermostat, these thermostats contain between 22.5 and 46.2 tons of mercury. The mercury in those thermostats—if improperly disposed—enters our waterways, then our seafood, and ultimately our bodies.

Today, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control finally demanded huge improvements to the way that manufacturers collect mercury thermostats in the state, including providing financial incentives for homeowners. Over the next year, manufacturers will partner with retailers in at least three California cities. When homeowners return old mercury thermostats to these retailers’ collection bins, they will receive a gift card worth $5.00 or $10.00. Homeowners returning mercury thermostats to Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) facilities in the state will receive a $10.00 incentive payment, in the form of a mail-in rebate or gift card. 

Large HVAC, general, and demolition contractors will also receive incentive payments under the program revisions approved today. They will receive $2.50 per thermostat. HVAC wholesalers will receive between $1.00-$2.50 for each thermostat collected, depending upon how many are returned in a collection container at one time.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control is reacting to the thermostat manufacturers’ lackluster collection program. Under legislation passed in 2008, the Department issued precedent-setting collection goals in 2013 for the recycling program. Unfortunately, the manufacturers have not come close to meeting these 2013 goals, and recent data indicates the program has gotten worse. 

In 2014, the manufacturers collected the equivalent of 22,178 mercury thermostats in California. The regulatory collection goal was 95,400. The following year, they collected almost 10 percent fewer thermostats—and only 16 percent of the 2015 collection goal of 113,850. 

In states where the law requires a financial incentive, the programs have been much more successful. For example, Maine and Vermont require a $5 incentive to contractors and homeowners. In 2015, the per capita collection rates (per 10,000 people) in Maine and Vermont were 34.3 and 31.9 respectively, compared to just 4.7 in California. 

The manufacturers also lack an on-the-ground presence in California, effectively trying to run the program from Virginia. Consequently, to date, they have conducted very little personal outreach to HVAC contractors or other key stakeholders. More detailed and comprehensive outreach activities are now required, with additional activities to be proposed in February and June 2017.

Many of the improvements ordered by the Department were previously recommended by NRDC and our partners. The Department’s action today is the beginning, not the end. Vigilance by the Department, NRDC and our partners, and other stakeholders will be required to ensure the thermostat manufacturers finally commit the time, resources, and effort to get the job done.