Mercury is a naturally occurring element contained in many products such as fluorescent lightbulbs, button cell batteries, and non-digital thermometers and thermostats. When mercury containing devices are disposed of in landfills or waste-to-energy facilities, they release mercury into the surrounding earth, air and water bodies. Mercury contaminates ecosystems, harming and altering organisms’ immune systems, genetic systems, enzyme systems and nervous systems. Since mercury bioaccumulates within the food chain, the top predators (including humans) consume the highest concentrations. Consequently, the EPA and state advisories recommend limiting the consumption of certain fish to reduce mercury exposure. This has sparked many initiatives to reduce the concentration of mercury in the environment and reduce its harmful effects. Since 2003, the Center for EcoTechnology (CET) has contributed to a range of efforts to recover mercury.
In 2014, the American Chemical Society published the results of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s (MassDEP) twelve year study on mercury concentrations in freshwater fish. The study consisted of monitoring mercury concentrations in largemouth bass and yellow perch in 23 Massachusetts lakes from 1999-2011. Over this period, mercury emissions from major point sources, such as waste-to-energy facilities, decreased by 98% in a regional mercury “hotspot” area. The study found significant mercury reductions in that hotspot area:
- Average mercury concentrations in tissue decreased 44% in largemouth bass and 43% in yellow perch within 13 of 16 lakes.
- Annual tissue mercury concentration decreased by .029mg Hg/kg/yr for large-mouth bass and .016 mg Hg/kg/yr for yellow perch.
Green Business Services Director, Lorenzo Macaluso, has led many of the Center for EcoTechnology’s mercury reduction efforts. Macaluso is pleased by how the study’s results demonstrate that mercury collection efforts are having the desired result. These mercury reduction efforts began with a grant from the EPA targeted at decreasing the improper disposal of fluorescent lightbulbs. Mercury is used in compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFL) and other fluorescent lighting to make the bulbs more efficient. The EPA grant enabled the Center for EcoTechnology to successfully divert hundreds of thousands of bulbs from landfills and send them to specialized facilities equipped to recycle all components of each bulb.
Macaluso was also involved in the MassDEP’s Mercury Management Act work group. This led to work with Covanta SEMASS, a waste-to-energy facility located in Southeastern Massachusetts. Initial work with Covanta SEMASS focused on replacing blood pressure cuffs with non-mercury substitutes at health care facilities. The Center for EcoTechnology and Covanta SEMASS have since collaborated on a range of mercury collection efforts. These include outreach to tanning salons to recover bulbs with particularly high concentrations of mercury, outreach through senior centers, and creating Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Universal Waste Sheds that collect mercury-containing devices.
The Center for EcoTechnology has also collaborated with the National Electrical Manufacturers association to provide outreach work regarding lamp recycling. Additionally, they reached out to hardware stores to organize and encourage bulb take-back programs. In 2015, the Center for EcoTechnology visited over 100 HVAC distributors across the state in support of the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC). At these visits, they helped make sure TRC collection buckets were properly placed and helped ship full containers of mercury thermostats for recycling.
As an organization, the Center for EcoTechnology has replaced thousands of mercury-containing thermostats with digital varieties and facilitated the recovery of hundreds of thousands of mercury-containing light bulbs. The Center for EcoTechnology’s website includes a factsheet on mercury, and the organization also manages two MassDEP funded programs, RecyclingWorks in Massachusetts, and THE GREEN TEAM. These programs include information on proper disposal of mercury-containing products.
The Center for EcoTechnology is motivated by the positive results of the fish study to continue expanding efforts to reduce mercury contamination in the environment. For more updates on mercury recovery, keep an eye on the Go Green News and RecyclingWorks blog!