The Importance of Thermostat Recycling

The Importance of Thermostat Recycling

If you know anything about thermostat recycling, you probably know Mark Tibbetts.

The energetic head of the Thermostat Recycling Corp. (TRC) since February 2008, Tibbetts has helped grow the non-profit stewardship organization into an expansive network of more than 3,600 nationwide collection sites in an effort to keep hazardous mercury out of the landfill.

The TRC, which is financially supported by 30 manufacturers who historically branded and sold mercury thermostats, has recovered and paid for the costs to transport and properly dispose of more than 1.9 million thermostats since its founding in 1998.

“While you can go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and buy a thermostat, it’s really not a consumer product,” Tibbetts says. “Thermostats are installed by HVAC contractors primarily so the key thing for us is focusing on that trade channel engagement. We have just about every major HVAC wholesaler in the country currently participating in the program and we just signed another major one last month.”

The program works like a reverse distribution scheme, he says. Bins are strategically located where contractors buy their parts to make it easy and convenient to dispose of mercury switch thermostats that have been recovered working in the field.

“The wholesaler returns that bin to TRC with upwards of about 100 thermostats, at TRC’s expense, and we empty out the bin, count how many thermostats are in it, and we return the same bin back to the wholesaler at our expense starting the process over again,” he says. “It’s a continuous loop type program.”

Waste360 grabbed a few minutes to talk to Tibbetts about the organization’s growth and to learn more about the competition where the winner takes home the “Mercury Cup.”

Waste360: What drove the organization’s impressive 13 percent growth last year?

Mark Tibbetts: We were very excited about the results last year. They exceed our internal goals and to have that kind of growth at this point in the program demonstrates the strength of our program and the strength of the strategy that we are employing now. A big chunk of our growth came in the Southwestern U.S. that was result of a couple of wholesalers in that market becoming really active.

The key underlying thing and why the 13 percent growth was so encouraging for us is that manufacturers ceased production of thermostats starting with Honeywell in 2006 and by 2009, the market simply dried up. TRC is actually trying to collect more of less and every day it gets a little bit harder because there are fewer mercury thermostats to recycle.

For most U.S. states it is still a voluntary program for contractors to recycle thermostats so what we have really been trying to do is raise awareness and visibility of the program.

Waste360: Do you have a sense of how many mercury thermostats are still out there?

Mark Tibbetts: I don’t have a good answer unfortunately because we don’t have good data on how many thermostats were historically installed. It’s a product that can function for up to 30 years and usually gets replaced when your furnace or AC fails. So we don’t really have a good handle on how many are left which makes it very difficult and challenging for us to access program performance. Over time, these thermostats are failing and they are being replaced and at some point TRC is actually working itself out of business.

Waste360: Can you talk about the importance of recycling these types of outdated thermostats?

Mark Tibbetts: The first caveat is a mercury thermostat on your wall functioning is perfectly safe. The mercury is contained within the switch. The issue isn’t mercury thermostats on the wall, it’s when these thermostats are replaced and how to dispose of them.

The simplest answer to that is everyone is aware of CFL light bulbs and those contain about 3 milligrams of mercury. In contrast, mercury thermostats contain at least 3 grams and as much as 12 grams; that’s a thousand times more mercury.

So they are a significant reservoir of mercury and they should not be thrown in the trash, particularly when you have a free and widely available recycling program sponsored by the manufacturers. There is no real reason not to take advantage of the TRC program.

Waste360: This year marks the fourth year of TRC’s Big Man On Planet (BMOP) competition, can you tell us about how the program has been so successful?

Mark Tibbetts: This competition is one of our favorite things. HVAC wholesale distributors are incredibly competitive and they are all sports fans. Building on those two themes, we created the Big Man On Planet (BMOP) that we co-sponsor with the trade group Heating Air-condition and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI), which represents the HVAC distributors.

Last year, the program—which runs from May 1 through October 31—was just insane how successful it was. We collected 250 pounds of mercury and increased distributor participation by 75 percent.

The idea is to create some friendly competition and raise the visibility of the program and to recognize those who are really doing well. Everybody wants to be recognized in front of their peers and everyone who is participating recognizes the important underlying theme which is there is a lot of mercury in thermostats and they shouldn’t go in the trash.

What drives results is access and awareness and the more people collecting for us and the more people promoting the program, the better the results are.

At the award banquet, we hand out a three-foot trophy that we call euphemistically the Mercury Cup and the big check in front of their peers.

Waste360: What do you when you’re not talking about thermostat recycling?

Mark Tibbetts: Well, I’m usually talking about thermostat recycling. Generally for a hobby, it’s chasing my kids around—I have three young children, a 7-year-old and twin daughters who are 9—and spending time with my family where we live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

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