It is estimated that there are some 1.1 million Australians who currently use a vape. That’s roughly 5.5% of the population. Although we don’t have good figures on exactly how many of those people are using single-use vapes, the issue of how to dispose of vapes in Australia is a growing one.
Outside of the health implications, vaping devices have been causing a major headache for waste disposal operations in Australia.
It’s estimated that, in the US, some 150 million disposable vaping devices are thrown away each year. In the UK, it’s conservatively estimated that 67.6 million end up in landfill each year. Both these surveys put the figure of those using disposable vapes at between a third and a half of the vaping population, a figure that increases for younger users.
If we assume the same patterns apply to Australia, that could mean that roughly somewhere between 6.2 and 17.2 million vapes are thrown away in this country each year. However, the Australian Association of Convenience Stores estimates that the true number is much higher. They say that between 90 and 100 million disposable vapes are imported and sold on the black market in Australia each year. All but a tiny fraction of those will be going straight to landfill.
That’s a huge problem.
For starters, vapes contain batteries made of lithium, a key metal that the world is both short of and reliant upon for a smooth transition to a renewable future. The 150 million vapes thrown away in America contain enough lithium to create 6000 batteries for new Tesla vehicles. This means Australia is potentially throwing away roughly 10% of the raw materials used to power the electric vehicles sold in this country in 2022 alone.
Lithium is not only mined in some pretty dire circumstances, but it’s also recyclable. There is no reason we should be throwing it away.
In addition, unsecured lithium batteries in bins present a serious fire hazard. Homes have been burnt to the ground and recycling plants torched around the world due to improperly disposed of vapes. Dozens have even exploded in people’s pockets, resulting in serious injuries.
The vaping market is an exponentially growing industry, expected to have climbed by US$24.3 billion globally since 2018. If the trend continues, we could be facing an epidemic of lithium, electrical, and chemical waste. Lord knows the planet does not need more of that right now.
While there’s no easy solution to the problem, here’s how you can at least minimise the impact your vapes are having on the planet.
How to Dispose of Vapes in Australia
Despite the name, disposing of a vape is difficult. The single-use variety bought at convenience stores in Australia are comprised of a whole host of potentially hazardous materials that need to be separated. Doing so can be dangerous and people have been advised against tampering with them in this way.
The parts can be pulled out, with a bit of force, and the battery separated. The wires connecting the pieces can be carefully cut and the batteries removed along with the liquid container, the cotton wick, and the wiring. Don’t unwrap the batteries, however.
All of these need to be isolated, cleaned, and put into separate waste disposal streams for metals and plastics. It’s a time-intensive and potentially explosive endeavour. Seriously, lithium batteries can ignite if accidentally punctured and will start a large fire.
Once the batteries are separated, these can be dropped off in one of the B-Cycle recycling bins you’ll find at Officeworks, Bunnings, Woolworths, Aldi, and other retail stores.
Doing so individually is tricky, but doing so en masse is even harder. There are no official guidelines from any government recycling programmes and those who have taken it upon themselves to properly dispose of the vapes are overwhelmed.
Last year, engineer Alex Fairclough shared a post on Instagram calling for people’s ‘disposable’ vapes in order to keep them out of landfill. However, speaking to Vice, he notes that his scheme quickly became way too popular and he couldn’t handle the volume he was being sent.
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Even the professionals, like Reece Russell who manages one of WA’s licenced vape disposal companies, say it’s a challenge.
“They can be up to $10 per item to dispose of. It’s quite a big effort to pull them apart, and they are expensive to get rid of the individual components,” he told the ABC.
Outside of separating them yourself, there are few options for users. Australia’s Return Unwanted Medicines (RUM) programme put out a press release in 2021 instructing people not to throw whole disposable vapes into their bins. Few local council recycling programmes will accept them unless they are disassembled or free of liquid, posing a problem for consumers.
Environmental groups have been calling on the government to step in and fix what they see as an unfolding environmental emergency. The head of No More Butts has said that he is aware schools have “buckets of confiscated vaping devices and are unclear what to do with them.” He has argued the federal government need to up their game.
Dr Colin Mendelsohn, Founding Chairman of the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association, told The Latch that disposables are clearly “a growing threat to the environment” and that a national recycling plan needs to be created.
Such a programme could be “funded by manufacturers and run under government stewardship, like the TV and Computer Recycling Scheme, under the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water,” Mendelsohn suggests.
One of the key issues however is that the current model, which the government are doubling down on soon, makes cooperation with manufacturers virtually impossible. Given that these are black-market products, the government will not be able to set any standards for single-use vapes regarding their ingredients or their end-of-life pathways.
” A recycling program is only workable when nicotine vaping products are made legal, adult consumer products sold from licensed retail outlets,” Mendelsohn said.