The Nasty Stuff: State grants to collect mercury added products
(from Maine Townsman, May 2001)
by Michael L. Starn, Editor

During the month of May, the State Planning Office has been reviewing 75 applications for grants under the state's Mercury Added Products Recycling Assistance Program. Applications for funds under this program came from municipalities and regional associations that wanted to establish or improve a collection system for mercury added products and other types of universal wastes.

A little less than $400,000 will be awarded under this assistance program which is aimed at collecting and recycling mercury added products, such as fluorescent bulbs, (furnace) thermostats and (medical) thermometers, and other universal wastes, such as computers and television sets.

The deadline for grant applications was April 30 and SPO has until June 1 to announce the awards. According to SPO's Sam Morris, who is coordinating the program, the awarding of grants will be based on two primary criteria: (1) projects that encourage regional approaches; and (2) projects that reach the greatest number of people.

Population and geographic distribution will also be determining factors in the awarding of these grants. Morris says that northern and southern Maine had quite a few applications, but the applications from eastern Maine were sparse.

Morris says that the program is an attempt to provide local assistance to help individuals and businesses comply with a ban before it takes effect. The ban, which has one effective date for businesses and another for individuals, prohibits the disposal of mercury added products at a solid waste disposal facility (see sidebar). In addition to being users of mercury added products, municipalities are primarily affected by the ban because residents and businesses will look to them for help in complying with it.

"We tried to make the application process as simple as possible," said Morris.

Grants will be awarded for three types of activities: (1) storage facilities for mercury added products only, (2) facilities for mercury added products and universal wastes; and (3) one time recycling support to enable communities (or associations) to include mercury added products in with their household hazardous wastes (HHW) collection programs.

Of the 75 applications, 31 were submitted for mercury added products storage, 32 were for universal waste and mercury added products storage, and 12 were to enhance existing HHW collection programs to include mercury added products.

To keep costs down, the state is going to bulk purchase the sheds used for only mercury added products storage. Bids are now being solicited and SPO expects that a decision on the vendor will be made soon with delivery of sheds sometime this summer.

The storage sheds for the mercury added products will be 8 x 12 foot buildings. They can only be used for these types of products and must be located in a secure area.

SPO's Morris says the sheds will probably cost the state between two and four thousand dollars apiece. As part of the state's bid specs, the vendor must deliver the sheds to the communities which are awarded grants for them. With each shed, the state will supply packaging material for the mercury added products, laminated instructional signs and hazard warning signs, and spill kits. Additionally, the state will train all the individuals who will be manning these facilities. A condition of the grant award is that attendants be trained in handling mercury added products.

SPO is also working to secure a statewide service contract for the removal and recycling of mercury added products and other universal wastes. Municipalities and regional associations will have the option of using this contract to obtain a standard offer for the removal and recycling of mercury added products and universal wastes that they collect. While SPO has until April 1 of next year to secure this contract, Morris expects a vendor will be selected and the contract finalized long before that date, probably by this fall.

Future Funding/Unresolved Issues
SPO staff seem pleased with the number of applications in this first go-around of a voluntary program. Once the program has a few years under its belt, more communities are expected to participate. One caveat from SPO staff, however, is that future funding of the program will depend on passage of an environmental bond issue.

With regionalism being such an important factor for the program, interlocal cooperation will be necessary for the program to work effectively. Maine communities have a lot of history in working cooperatively in the solid waste area. Joint transfer stations, regional landfills, a statewide recycling cooperative, and waste-to-energy plants are examples of communities taking a regional, or statewide, approach to solid waste management.

On one hand, mercury added products are a small part of the solid waste stream. On the other hand, the high degree of toxicity of mercury makes it a big environmental problem. The fact that this type of waste comes in such small quantities makes collection more difficult and costly.

Fluorescent bulbs are energy efficient and last a long time. While this is environmentally good news for energy conservation purposes, the bad news is that a small amount of mercury is needed to make these bulbs work so efficiently. And, because they last so long, a regular collection program will probably not see a lot of activity, particularly if only residential users are allowed to participate in the program. Businesses are much larger users of fluorescent bulbs than households.

Because they are made of glass, these bulbs require careful handling and storage. When brought to a storage shed, they will need to be packaged immediately. Not attending immediately to a drop off at the storage shed could result in breakage and a mercury spill. Fluorescent bulbs also tend to collect quite a bit of dust, so the storage sheds are going to require some regular cleaning.

Ongoing versus one time collection is another issue that a few towns are struggling with. According to SPO's Morris, some municipal officials are taking a wait and see approach to the program hoping to find out which approach works best.

One reason why some municipal officials say they are not ready to participate in the program is because they prefer to have mercury added products collected during a one-time event, such as a HHW collection day. Two HHW collection programs in Maine have had quite a bit of success and are now trying to incorporate mercury added products into their programs.

HHW Collection Programs
The Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments (AVCOG) has been sponsoring a household hazardous waste collection day since 1995. A grant has been used to publicize the program. Carol Fuller coordinates the HHW program.

AVCOG uses Safety Clean of Andover, Massachusetts as the contractor for its HHW collection.

Paint is the biggest item collected, with pesticides next. Computers are not taken, because "they would be too much to handle," says Fuller.

Last year, towns were charged $18 per five gallon unit. For most of the participating towns, the cost was under $500.

Two years ago, AVCOG decided to try its hand at collecting fluorescent bulbs. Ten communities are participating in the program which is ongoing. AVCOG provides training for the people handling the bulbs.

Lewiston and Auburn have set up central collection sites; however, Lewiston's site is used just for its own collection of bulbs. The other communities transport their bulbs to the Auburn Public Works garage.

"When we get 50 boxes (filled), we call our contractor," said Fuller.

The contractor for the fluorescent bulb collection event is Superior Special Services of Stoughton, Massachusetts. The company removes the mercury from the bulbs and then recycles the bulbs.

AVCOG pays eight cents per linear foot, plus a $100 handling and transportation fee.

A grant has been used to subsidize the program thus far, so participating towns have only had to pay an average of 16 cents per bulb. In the future they will probably be paying the full disposal costs, says Fuller.

Fuller would like to get a thermometer (the medical type) exchange going. She would like to get a sponsor to buy digital thermometers that could replace the mercury ones that are brought in.

Another mercury added product that Fuller would like to target is furnace thermostats which contain quite a bit of mercury (when compared to a fluorescent bulb). However, these thermostats tend to last a long time and so it is difficult to incorporate their collection into the HHW program.

In Bangor the city's public works department has conducted a limited, household hazardous waste collection program for the past three years. During the first two years of the program, just oil-based products - paint, motor oil, etc. - were collected.

Last year, the program was opened up to four surrounding communities - Hermon, Hampden, Brewer and Veazie.

Bangor served as the central collection site. ONYX Environmental Services was the private contractor for the event. The company was chosen in large part because it had a contract with the University of Maine at Orono to process the university's hazardous wastes. Bangor and the other communities were able to piggyback onto the UMO arrangement and avoid transportation charges because the company was doing a pickup at UMO at the time of the HHW collection event.

During last year's HHW event, 2600 gallons of waste was collected in the five communities. Over half of that amount was collected in Bangor. The participating communities paid approximately $7 per gallon to get rid of the stuff. 

The HHW program has been very well received by Bangor residents, according to the city's public works director, Arthur Stockus. Every year, residents have asked for, and city officials have given them, an expanded program. Mercury added products and pesticides will be added to this fall's collection day. City officials, with state financial help, want to add TVs and computers to the list of items in the HHW mix. 

To date, Bangor's HHW collection has been funded through the municipal budget. Stockus is uncertain as to how the program will be funded in the future.

The popularity of Bangor's program is evidenced by the fact that residents in surrounding towns have pressured their local officials into joining the Bangor HHW program.

Requirements and Deadlines
Under the Universal Waste Rules

Businesses and municipalities must recycle the following wastes now, due to January, 2001 adoption of the Universal Waste rules: mercury containing lamps, cathode ray tubes (from computer monitors, TVs and other display devices), certain batteries, and mercury containing thermostats. These wastes must go to an approved recycling facility. Also covered by the rules, intact PCB ballasts must be disposed of as hazardous waste.

As of July 15, 2002 a disposal ban goes into place for businesses and municipalities getting rid of the following list of mercury added products: lamps, thermostats, thermometers, electrical switches and relays, other electrical devices, and medical or scientific devices. Some of these wastes are already required to be recycled now under the Universal Waste rules. Those items that are not under the Universal Waste rules should presently, in most cases, be going for hazardous waste disposal. With the 2002 disposal ban businesses will be required to send all these items to an approved recycling facility.

As of January 1, 2005 a disposal ban goes into place for households getting rid of any item in the above list of mercury added products.

Confused or want more information? The Maine DEP will be holding workshops this summer to help businesses understand their responsibilities under the Universal Waste rules and the 38 MRSA 1661 et seq., An Act to Reduce the Release of Mercury into the Environment from Consumer Products.

For more information, call ME DEP at (207)287-2651.

(from Ann Pistell, Maine Department of Environmental Protection)