A new Maine law requires automakers to remove certain switches from vehicles before the vehicles are scrapped.
It's a bad fix for a real problem, and automakers - who lobbied against the bill through the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers - must take another approach if they hope to keep the law from being copied in other states.
Only a tiny amount of mercury is used in cars and trucks. Most of it goes in the light switches in trunks and under hoods. But Maine multiplies that small amount times the 1.3 million vehicles on its roads, and it counts 1,500 pounds of mercury that could work its way into the land, air and water when vehicles are crushed or shredded. Mercury poses a health risk, especially to pregnant women and small children.
The law requires automakers to set up their own system for gathering and disposing of switches from old vehicles. The problem? Maine already has an infrastructure for dismantling vehicles. It's called the scrapyard. Automakers now must create a needlessly expensive and wasteful second network. That's before you consider the logistical mess of having automakers keep tabs on vehicles until the end of their life cycle.
Yes, the auto industry already has taken a big step by phasing out its use of mercury. But it can't wash its hands of the mercury still in its cars. Automakers share some of the responsibility for seeing that it is disposed of properly.
Maine hopes its law will be copied by other states. And as states often follow "model laws," that's a real possibility.
For automakers, the best defense will be a good offense. They must work with the dismantlers and find a way to deal with the problem together. Otherwise, legislators will continue to prescribe their own fixes.