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Mystery of recycling: vapers and vaping products

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When electronic cigarettes, or vapes, hit the market in 2007, they were initially seen as 1) a healthier alternative to cigarettes and 2) a possible stepping stone to quitting smoking once and for all. Unfortunately, the use of vapers has been found to have many risk for the health of its own.

The use of vapers has increased dramatically since their introduction over a decade ago. The CDC reports that more than 25% of high school students used e-cigarettes in 2019. Their report also states that in 2020, more than 17 million units of e-cigarettes were sold in retail stores over a four week period – including marijuana vapers. This translates into hundreds of millions of vaping products added to the waste stream every year.

Some people originally thought that vapers would be a boon to the environment because people wouldn’t throw cigarette butts on the ground. But vaping comes with its own environmental issues, including toxic chemicals, an increase in plastic, and e-waste.

Components of a vape

Most vapers have:

    • A cartridge that contains the e-liquid
    • E-liquid containing propylene glycol, aroma and nicotine or THC
    • An atomizer that heats the liquid
    • A microprocessor
    • A rechargeable battery (usually lithium-ion)
    • A captor
  • LED light
  • A mouthpiece that activates the device when the user inhales

All of these components make safe disposal difficult.

Mixed materials mean a recycling headache

Vapes are made from a mixture of materials – usually a combination of glass, metal, and plastic. This combination makes it difficult to separate a single material that might be recyclable. For this reason alone, vaping products are not accepted in curbside recycling.

What’s in this e-liquid?

The liquid in electronic cigarettes contains nicotine and a host of other chemicals. Marijuana vaporizers contain sticky THC oil, which makes recycling nearly impossible. The chemicals contained in the ingredients of e-liquids vary widely from manufacturer to manufacturer and regulation of these ingredients is lacking.

The EPA considers nicotine to be a acute hazardous waste. Nicotine can be toxic to children, pets, and wildlife. If thrown into the litter box, nicotine can contaminate water supply systems. Do not throw e-liquid in your trash or recycling bin, and never rinse it down the drain.

Vaping and electronic waste

The electronics in the vapes also pose a recycling problem. Theoretically, you could separate the electronic components and take them to a facility that accepts electronic waste. Yet in these small devices, electronic parts such as coils and sensors are mixed with plastic and glass. It is difficult and sometimes impossible to separate them for recycling. Disassembling a vape also presents the risk of spilling the e-liquid.

Lithium-ion batteries are a bigger problem. They are classified as hazardous waste and must be handled correctly. Under certain conditions, lithium-ion batteries can catch fire or explode. Improper disposal of batter can harm consumers and sanitizers.

Confusion around the elimination of vaping

Like so many hard-to-recycle items, manufacturers or the government have little guidance on how to responsibly dispose of vaping products.

Not surprisingly, people who use vaping products are quite confused about their proper disposal. The Truth Initiative asked a group of 15-24 year olds how they got rid of vaping products. More than 50% of respondents declared having put the empty vapors in the trash or in the curbside collection. A majority cited lack of clarity and convenience as barriers to proper disposal.

Recycling options

There aren’t many options for recycling vapes. TerraCycle offers recycling of vape by post Zero Waste Box. However, these boxes will not leave you with any vaping waste. TerraCycle does not accept lithium-ion batteries or toxic materials. They also don’t accept cartridges, which rules out quite a bit of vape waste. The cost of an 11 “x11” x 20 “box is $ 135.

Very few sellers of vaping products offer free products in exchange for vapes or cartridges returned for recycling. Sellers often lose money on such programs, which is why there are so few.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is another option to at least put off steam. The DEA hosts prescription drug withdrawal events to prevent prescription drug abuse. In 2020, they addition of vapes and cartridges to the list of materials they accept. The program does not accept lithium-ion batteries.

Search Earth911’s recycling database to find a lithium-ion battery recycling location near you – just enter your zip code.

FDA notice on the elimination of vapers

The FDA declares that all Waste electronic cigarettes and waste e-liquids should be treated as household hazardous waste (DDD). They offer the following tips:

  • Check with state and local resources for regulations and hazardous waste collection sites.
  • Seal used vapers and do not keep them for more than 90 days before disposal
  • Do not rinse the e-liquid from the cartridges – it will contaminate the water.
  • Avoid getting e-liquid on the skin, as it can be toxic.
  • Keep vapers out of the reach of children and pets – nicotine can be toxic.

Find a location for DMD disposal near you.

Use your voice to ask for a solution

Ultimately, the responsibility for the proper disposal of the vape rests with the consumer. What can you do? If your favorite brand doesn’t offer a take-back program to recycle their used vape products, ask the company to provide you with one. You can also start a petition or contact representatives of your city and state and tell them you support extended producer responsibility laws that require manufacturers to support the recycling of end-of-life products they make. Your voice can help make a difference.