Vape Waste: More Harmful Than You Think

August 11, 2020

What many people don’t know is that tobacco product waste from cigarette butts is one of the most common forms of plastic waste found.1,2,3 And, thanks to the tobacco industry, there is now even more work to do because a new threat is facing our environment – vape waste.

Vape waste creates three huge environmental issues:

  1. Increase in single-use plastics
  2. Increase in tech waste from their parts, including lithium-ion batteries
  3. Introduction of hazardous and toxic chemicals like nicotine into the environment when discarded

1. What is vape waste?

Vape waste is waste associated with vapes, including disposable vapes, pods or cartridges, e-liquid containers and packaging, and vape batteries. Vape waste is especially bad for the environment because it is three forms of waste in one: plastic waste, hazardous waste, and electronic waste (e-waste). All of these are hazardous for the environment.

Vapes create plastic waste. The device body and pod components are made of plastic. Plastic is an environmental problem because it doesn’t biodegrade like organic materials do – it can take up to hundreds of years for some plastic items to decompose.4 Vapes are also a toxic waste because of the heavy metals in the vape and the nicotine in the e-juice.5 Finally, vapes are e-waste since they contain lithium-ion batteries and a heating element.6

2. How do vaping products generate more single-use plastics?

Many vape products, like Juul, use pods or cartridges to hold the e-juices, which are plastic. With these products, users replace the pods when the e-juice is used up. But these pods can’t be recycled with other plastic waste because they contain nicotine, which is hazardous waste.7 They also have other toxic chemicals in them. If pods and cartridges are discarded as litter, they may leach nicotine and other toxic chemicals into the environment or be eaten by wildlife or pets. Research has shown that even very small amounts of nicotine can be harmful or even lethal to animals.8

To get an idea of the impact of vape waste, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), collected 172 pieces of vape waste in one day at 10 of the 12 Bay Area school parking lots they went to.9 And that’s just high schools – where kids aren’t even legally allowed to have vapes.

Now, the problem may get worse. At the beginning of 2020, the youth vaping epidemic finally prompted action from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – the agency banned flavors other than tobacco and menthol for pod or cartridge-based e-cigarettes. But if there’s one thing the tobacco industry is good at, it’s finding ways to get around policies that are meant to protect people from their dangerous products. Thanks to intense tobacco industry lobbying efforts, the FDA’s policy doesn’t include disposable e-cigarettes, which are also plastic. Not surprisingly, the popularity of these products, such as Puff Bar, has taken off.10

3. How does vape waste increase tech waste?

Disposing of e-waste is a considerable challenge due to the many different types of chemicals and materials in these products. Vapes present at least two problems, as their vaporizers contain a circuit board, which can contain plastics and heavy metals.11 They also use lithium-ion batteries. But many vape products and accessories are being thrown away in the garbage or worse – dumped as litter, as the UCSF survey found.9 As batteries degrade, they can leach their chemicals into the environment.And if they are put in garbage or trash receptacles, they pose a fire risk in waste and recycling facilities if damaged or exposed to high heat, putting workers’ safety at risk.12

4. Is vape waste considered hazardous waste?

Yes. Both California state and federal laws list nicotine as hazardous waste. Nicotine is a neurotoxin that has been used as a pesticide and has been considered acute hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since 1980.7 Discarded devices may leach lead,13 cobalt,14 and other substances into the environment in toxic amounts. Toxic chemicals from commercial tobacco product waste can accumulate in animals, soil, and aquatic ecosystems, leading to contaminated drinking water and foods and posing additional downstream risks to human health and the environment.15

5. How big is the vape waste problem?

Consider that one survey found that 3.6 million adults vape daily.16 Even if just one-third of this group uses one pod or disposable e-cigarette a day, that would produce more than a billion pieces of vape waste in one year, with no place to properly discard or recycle. And this isn’t counting vape waste from the estimated more than five million middle and high school students who vape.17

6. Can vapes be properly disposed of?

Vapes need to be properly disposed of because they are toxic e-waste. Rechargeable e-cigarettes like Juul have lithium-ion batteries, which can be recycled via most city recycling programs, like Call2Recycle. Unfortunately, the pod/cartridge is not so easy to properly dispose of due to the toxic e-liquid residue. As of now, there’s no clear way to recycle used pods in the U.S.

7. What can be done?

First off, if you vape, quit. It will protect your health, and protect the environment. If you need help to quit, the California Smokers’ Helpline now has free vape quitting services, including an app. Visit www.novapes.org for more information.

Additionally, if you are interested in getting involved in your community’s efforts to combat tobacco product waste, join your local coalition.

References renameme

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  2. Novotny TE, Lum K, Smith E, Wang V, Barnes R. Cigarettes butts and the case for an environmental policy on hazardous cigarette waste. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2009;6(5):1691-1705. doi:10.3390/ijerph6051691
  3. Beck RW. Final Report: Litter: A Review of Litter Studies, Attitude Surveys and Other Litter-related Literature. Keep America Beautiful, Inc., 2007
  4. Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection. Guidelines for the Monitoring and Assessment of Plastic Litter in the Ocean. http://www.gesamp.org/site/assets/files/2002/rs99e.pdf. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP);2019.
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  10. Kaplan S. Teens Find a Big Loophole in the New Flavored Vaping Ban. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/31/health/vaping-flavors-disposable.html. Published January 31, 2020. Accessed July 24, 2020.
  11. Hendlin YH. E-cigarettes and a new threat: How to dispose of them [blog]. The Conversation. https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/e-cigarettes-and-new-threat-how-dispose-them. Published October 23, 2018. Accessed July 7, 2020.
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