Understanding Mercury Waste & Mercury Recycling Process

Published June 2013


The use of Mercury in common products, like thermometers, medicines, cosmetics production and laboratory devices, has significantly declined as the dangers of mercury were discovered. Still, that did not prevent us from finding practical uses in modern technology. Today, mercury is used primarily for the manufacture of industrial chemicals or for electrical and electronic applications, and it can be found in everything from fluorescent lamps to thermostats. And while we have found safer uses and have been able to reduce the amount of mercury required to create a viable product, as is the case with fluorescent lamps, that does not mean it is any less dangerous. The harmful effects of mercury are still present and it must be handled, stored, transported and recycled carefully.


Mercury is most harmful through contact and ingestion. It is safe to say that physically consuming elemental mercury is a very rare occurrence. But how often do you think about whether the things you are eating have been exposed to mercury waste? This can occur when mercury contaminates our lakes, streams, and other water supplies. Through a microbial process, the spilled mercury is transformed into an organic form of mercury called methylmercury. The methylmercury is then transferred to fish and other wildlife that we could eventually consume. In a process called bio-accumulation, the small amounts of mercury in tiny organisms travels up the food chain and accumulates in larger and larger animals like fish and birds.  Damage to the lungs, kidneys, and nervous system can be caused by methylmercury. Exposure can also affect the neurological development in children. Containment is the best prevention from all of these dangers. Always avoid direct contact, inhalation, and the spillage of mercury waste into the environment.


What is the difference? Isn’t it all recycled the same way?

Distinguishing the different types of mercury waste is the first step towards recycling it. Mercury devices are manufactured items containing elemental mercury that is not exposed. Thermostats, barometers, pressure gauges, and mercury switches are all examples of some common mercury devices. As long as the integrity of the device is not compromised these household items are relatively easy to recycle. This means, the mercury is sealed within the intact device and has no means of leaking.

As soon as the elemental mercury is exposed from a device, such as a crack or leak that mercury could escape from, it is considered mercury debris. Raw mercury is the most harmful state of mercury and must be treated carefully when handled. Always try to avoid spilling elemental mercury from a device. Not only is it more harmful, the disposal and recycling process is more difficult and often it is more expensive. Sources of mercury debris include: dental amalgam, soil with mercury spilled onto it, any items used in a mercury spill kit such as cardboard, gloves, towels and actual broken mercury devices. This can include any contaminated item.


With the help of technology, recycling mercury has never been easier and more efficient. Recyclers have engineered processes that ensure 99% of mercury is extracted safely. The mercury collected is used again in new products.

Whether you have fluorescent lamps or thermostats, make sure you seek out a responsible solution when you need to dispose of any article or material that contains mercury.  Find a certified recycler who can ensure proper disposal and prevent hazardous mercury to contaminate the environment. TRC Partner, Veolia ES, outlines the basics of their mercury recycling process for lamps and mercury items.


For additional information on recycling mercury devices and debris, including mercury-containing lamps, you are welcome to contact our recycling representatives any time. Also, stay tuned for our upcoming blog on Proper Mercury Handling, spill clean-up safety and how to manage broken lamps.