Arkansas, Michigan Try Differing Automotive Mercury Strategies

Published June 1, 2005

The state of Arkansas on March 8 became the second state in the nation to pass a mandatory recycling law for automotive mercury switches. Supported by such interest groups as the Automotive Recyclers Association, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Steel Recycling Institute, and Steel Manufacturers Association, the Arkansas bill requires automakers, rather than end-of-life auto scrappers and recyclers, to bear the cost of the new law.

In Michigan, by contrast, automakers and the state have formed an alliance to eliminate mercury waste in a more cooperative manner.

Arkansas Deal for Dismantlers

In an effort to further accelerate the rapid decrease of U.S. environmental mercury, activist groups such as the Partnership for Mercury Free Vehicles have proposed state legislation similar to that enacted by Arkansas. The Arkansas law requires automakers to pay a $5 bounty to auto dismantlers for each switch removed, and an additional $1 per switch to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Protection, to offset its costs for overseeing the law. In addition to the bounties and fees, automakers must pay all mercury transportation and recycling costs.

Automakers are particularly outraged over the $5 fee they must pay. The Michigan Mercury Switch Study, conducted in 2002 by environmental, recycling, and automotive groups, concluded the average time required to remove an automotive mercury switch was between 44 and 95 seconds. In essence, automakers are being required by law to pay auto scrappers and recyclers between $200 (60 minutes divided by 95 seconds, times $5) and $400 (60 minutes divided by 44 seconds, times $5) an hour for their labor.

In addition, automakers point out, assigning the mercury switch removal task to dismantlers is not a new or novel burden. Dismantlers are already charged with removing such items as tires, batteries, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, antifreeze, brake fluid, and clutch fluid.

Industry Eliminated Switches

The auto industry already has taken significant steps to eliminate automotive mercury. Automakers began voluntarily phasing out mercury switches in 1990 and completed the phase-out in 2002. No new or recent model vehicles have mercury switches in them.

Facilities that recycle auto scrap emit 10 to 12 tons of mercury into the environment each year. That number represents less than 8 percent of annual U.S. mercury emissions. Even without any special action, the amount of automotive mercury discharged into the environment will dramatically decline over time as an ever-greater percentage of scrap vehicles will have been built after 1990.

Michigan Uses Cooperation

In stark contrast to the legislative action taken in Arkansas, the state of Michigan has chosen to work with all involved parties and form a voluntary alliance committed to mercury switch recovery.

On March 30, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) joined the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to launch a landmark statewide mercury switch collection program for end-of-life vehicles.

The voluntary program will assist motor vehicle recyclers in removing mercury-containing switches, providing them with supplies and easy-to-understand removal instructions.

Alliance President and CEO Fred Webber stated in a March 30 AAM news release, “The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is pleased to be participating in this pilot program. The auto industry has been a leader in removing mercury switches from vehicles and continues to believe that a comprehensive strategy is necessary to remove mercury from all consumer products.”

“The mercury switch program is an excellent opportunity to remove a source of mercury from our air and our waters,” added Michigan DEQ Director Steven E. Chester in the AAM news release. “I strongly encourage recyclers and other industries that process scrap vehicles to partner with us and make the commitment to helping create a clean, safe Michigan.”

Cooperation to Continue

As part of the program, the AAM will continue to work with the Michigan DEQ and other program participants to develop, produce, and distribute educational materials to motor vehicle recyclers.

A switch-removal training video, “The 48 Second Solution,” can be viewed on the Web at AAM is also “providing funding for supplies and transportation to the MDEQ-designated” disposal and recycling sites, the release noted. The first phase of an AAM/DEQ assessment of the effectiveness of the program will be completed in September 2006.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

The December 19, 2002 Michigan Mercury Switch Study is available online at