August 21, 2006

Nationwide U.S. program to recover auto mercury switches

A landmark agreement involving industry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and environmental organizations will create a new, industry-funded, national program for recovering mercury switches from vehicles before they are dismantled and melted for recycling. The National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program is designed to remove mercury-containing light switches from scrap vehicles before the vehicles are flattened, shredded, and melted to make new steel.

Recovering mercury switches from old cars will cut air emissions of mercury by up to 75 tons over the next 15 years, says the EPA. Although mercury-containing switches have been phased out, auto switches from pre-2003 automobiles currently represent the largest manufacturing source of mercury air emissions in the U.S., surpassed only by two combustion sources: coal-fired power plants and industrial boilers. The EPA estimates that some 67 million switches remain available for recovery.

The agreement was reached after years of research, advocacy and coalition-building by Environmental Defense and Ecology Center, working closely with the vehicle dismantlers, vehicle shredders, steelmakers, state governments, the auto industry and the EPA. Ecology Center and Environmental Defense first called national attention to this issue more than five years ago with two groundbreaking reports that detailed the scope of the problem and proposed solutions. The two organizations then formed a partnership with the steel and auto recycling industries to advance a common approach, based on automaker responsibility, to address this problem.

Since then, ten states have passed laws based on this approach: Maine, New Jersey, Arkansas, Rhode Island, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, Illinois, Iowa, and Massachusetts. The national program will complement these and other state laws inspired by this effort. The participants' roles are outlined as follows.

*Ten leading automakers have established the End of Life Vehicle Solutions Corporation (ELVS), which will provide dismantlers with information and supplies needed for switch removal, collect and transport switches to proper recycling and disposal facilities, and track program performance.

*Participating dismantlers will remove mercury-containing switches and ship them to ELVS, giving the dismantlers the ability to market reduced mercury scrap and to gain recognition as well as certain financial incentives.

*Participating scrap recyclers will build awareness of the mercury switch removal program in their own industry and in the dismantling industry, which is their chief supplier of scrap vehicles.

*Participating steelmakers will educate and encourage their supply chain to participate, and will take steps to purchase scrap metal generated from participating dismantlers and recyclers that have removed the mercury-containing switches.

These industries will have support from participating environmental groups, from the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS, the association representing state environmental agencies) and from the EPA.

The environmental groups have agreed to publicly endorse the program. They will support outreach, education, and oversight-related activities, and will participate in the development and improvement of data collection efforts related to mercury recovery.

ECOS, which provided extensive guidance and information to develop the program, will now take a number of steps to implement it, including working with partners to co-ordinate the program with existing state programs and to provide services to states without such programs.

Finally, the EPA has committed to take the national program into account in future rulemaking affecting scrap metal-using industries, to share information broadly about the program and its benefits, and to assist in efforts to assess and improve it.

Environmental Defense and Ecology Center have been working on this issue nationally through the Partnership for Mercury-Free Vehicles. The full list of partners includes:

- the American Iron and Steel Institute - www.steel.org

- the Steel Manufacturers Association - www.steelnet.org

- the Automotive Recyclers Association - www.a-r-a.org

- the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries - www.isri.org

- the End of Life Vehicles Corporation - www.elvsolutions.org

- Environmental Defense - www.environmentaldefense.org

- the Ecology Center - www.ecocenter.org

- the Environmental Council of the States - www.ecos.org

- the Environmental Protection Agency - www.epa.gov

More information is available from Karen Thomas at Environmental Defense, 413/587-2270, or Charles Griffith at the Ecology Center, 734/663-2400, ext 116.

In Canada this past June, federal Environment Minister Rona Ambrose announced plans for a new Canadian pollution prevention initiative targeting mercury-containing switches in vehicles (EcoWeek June 12, 2006). Pollution Probe, which has been working on this issue for over five years, commended the move, although it said Canada should go even further and adopt a comprehensive mercury elimination and reduction strategy.

The proposal for such a strategy was put forth in January by Pollution Probe, along with 14 health and environmental NGOs from Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Specific actions, they said, should include phasing out mercury-containing products where alternatives are available, and increasing the collection and recycling of mercury-containing products. In addition to developing and adopting a national mercury strategy, Canada should take a leadership role internationally in promoting global mercury reduction strategies (leading up to the next UNEP Governing Council meeting in 2007), Pollution Probe added.

Meanwhile, Switch Out, a voluntary program run by the Clean Air Foundation, has successfully recovered more than 130,000 mercury switches in the past few years. Pollution Probe piloted the program in the fall of 2000 with 11 automobile recyclers in Ontario. Transferred to the Clean Air Foundation in 2001, Switch-Out has since become an award-winning program, supported by industry and government as well as not-for-profit organizations. It currently operates in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, and is being expanded to include Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.

Current figures indicate that there are 13 to 15 tonnes of mercury in vehicles on the road in Canada. As of June 21, 2006, the program has kept 109 kg of mercury out of the environment (one gram is enough to contaminate a 20-acre lake).

More information is available on the Clean Air Foundation Web site, www.cleanairfoundation.org/switchout/.

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