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Reclamation and recycling of mercury from used mercury- containing products and treatment of byproduct mercury from gold mining is vital to the continued, though declining, use of this metal. Mercury is reclaimed from mercury-containing waste by treatment in multistep high-temperature retorts-the mercury is volatized and then condensed for purification and sale. Some mercury-containing waste, however, may be landfilled, and landfilled material represents loss of a recyclable resource and a threat to the environment. Related issues include mercury disposal and waste management, toxicity and human health, and regulation of mercury releases in the environment.
End-users of mercury-containing products may face fines and prosecution if these products are improperly recycled or not recycled. Local and State environmental regulations require adherence to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act to regulate generation, treatment, and disposal of mercury-containing products. In the United States, several large companies and a number of smaller companies collect these products from a variety of sources and then reclaim and recycle the mercury.
Because mercury has not been mined as a principal product in the United States since 1992, mercury reclamation from fabricated products has become the main source of mercury. Principal product mercury and byproduct mercury from mining operations are considered to be primary materials. Mercury may also be obtained as a byproduct from domestic or foreign gold-processing operations.
In the early 1990s, U.S. manufacturers used an annual average that ranged from 500 to 600 metric tons of recycled and imported mercury for fabrication of automobile convenience switches, dental amalgam, fluorescent lamps, medical uses and thermometers, and thermostats. The amount now used for fabrication is estimated to be 200 metric tons per year or less. Much of the data on mercury is estimated because it is a low-volume commodity and its production, use, and disposal is difficult to track. The prices and volumes of each category of mercury-containing material may change dramatically from year to year. For example, the average price of mercury was approximately $150 per flask from 2000 until 2003 and then rose sharply to $650 per flask in fall 2004 and approximately $850 per flask in spring 2005. Since 1927, the common unit for measuring and pricing mercury has been the flask in order to conform to the system used at Almaden, Spain (Meyers, 1951). One flask weighs 34.5 kilograms, and 29 flasks of mercury are contained in a metric ton.
In the United States, the chlorine-caustic soda industry, which is the leading end-user of elemental mercury, recycles most of its mercury in-plant as home scrap. Annual purchases of replacement mercury by the chlorine-caustic soda industry indicate that some mercury may be lost through evaporation to the environment, put into a landfill as industrial waste, or trapped within pipes in the plant. Impending closure of domestic and foreign mercury-cell chlorine-caustic soda plants and the shift to nonmercury technology for chlorine-caustic soda production could ultimately result in a significant volume of elemental mercury for recycling, sale, or storage. Globally, mercury is widely used in artisanal, or small-scale, gold mining. Most of that mercury is lost to the environment and is not recycled. The recycling rate for mercury was not available owing to insufficient data in 2000, and the efficiency of mercury recycling was estimated to be 62 percent.