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Feb. 29, 2024

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Communities can’t recycle or trash disposable e-cigarettes – so what happens to them?

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A law enforcement member of New York Sheriff's Joint Compliance Task Force makes a record of confiscated smoking products Sept. 27 during raid of an unlicensed marijuana shop in New York.
A law enforcement member of New York Sheriff's Joint Compliance Task Force makes a record of confiscated smoking products Sept. 27 during raid of an unlicensed marijuana shop in New York. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

WASHINGTON — With the growing popularity of disposable e-cigarettes, communities across the U.S. are confronting a new vaping problem: how to safely get rid of millions of small, battery-powered devices that are considered hazardous waste.

For years, the debate surrounding vaping largely centered on its risks for high school and middle school students enticed by flavors like gummy bear, lemonade and watermelon.

But the recent shift toward e-cigarettes that can’t be refilled has created a new environmental dilemma. The devices, which contain nicotine, lithium and other metals, cannot be reused or recycled. Under federal environmental law, they also aren’t supposed to go in the trash.

U.S. teens and adults are buying roughly 12 million disposable vapes per month. With little federal guidance, local officials are finding their own ways to dispose of e-cigarettes collected from schools, colleges, vape shops and other sites.

“We are in a really weird regulatory place where there is no legal place to put these and yet we know, every year, tens of millions of disposables are thrown in the trash,” said Yogi Hale Hendlin, a health and environmental researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.

In late August, sanitation workers in Monroe County, New York, packed more than 5,500 brightly colored e-cigarettes into 55-gallon steel drums for transport. Their destination? A giant, industrial waste incinerator in northern Arkansas, where they would be melted down.

Sending 350 pounds of vapes across the country to be burned into ash may not sound environmentally friendly. But local officials say it’s the only way to keep the nicotine-filled devices out of sewers, waterways and landfills, where their lithium batteries can catch fire.

“These are very insidious devices,” said Michael Garland, who directs the county’s environmental services. “They’re a fire risk and they’re certainly an environmental contaminant if not managed properly.”

Elsewhere, the disposal process has become both costly and complicated. In New York City, for example, officials are seizing hundreds of thousands of banned vapes from local stores and spending more than $1 each for disposal.

Hazardous waste

Vaping critics say the industry has skirted responsibility for the environmental impact of its products, while federal regulators have failed to force changes that could make vaping components easier to recycle or less wasteful.

Among the possible changes: standards requiring that e-cigarettes be reusable or forcing manufacturers to fund collection and recycling programs. New York, California and several other states have so-called extended product responsibility laws for computers and other electronics. But those laws don’t cover vaping products and there are no comparable federal requirements for any industry.

Environmental Protection Agency rules for hazardous waste don’t apply to households, meaning it’s legal for Americans to throw e-cigarettes in the garbage at home. But most businesses, schools and government facilities are subject to EPA standards in how they handle harmful chemicals like nicotine, which the EPA considers an “acute hazardous waste,” because it can be poisonous at high levels.

In the U.S., the push to manage disposable e-cigarettes has chiefly come from schools, which can face stricter regulation if they generate more than a few pounds of hazardous waste per month. Monroe County schools pay $60 to dispose of each one-gallon container of vapes. Over two thirds of the e-cigarettes collected by the county come from schools.

“Our schools were very relieved because they had confiscated so much of this material,” Garland said. “If you think of all the high schools across the country, they are in a very difficult place right now.”

The lithium in e-cigarette batteries is the same highly sought metal used to power electric vehicles and cellphones. But the quantities used in vaping devices are too small to warrant salvage. And nearly all disposable e-cigarette batteries are soldered into the device, making it impractical to separate them for recycling.

Disposable e-cigs currently account for about 53 percent of the multi-billion U.S. vaping market, according to U.S. government figures, more than doubling since 2020.

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