When e-cigarettes, or vapes, came on the market in 2007, they were initially seen as 1) a healthier alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes and 2) a possible stepping stone to quitting smoking once and for all. Unfortunately, the use of vapes has proven to have many health risks of its own.
The use of vapes has increased dramatically since they were introduced over a decade ago. The CDC reports that over 25% of high school students used e-cigarettes in 2019. Their report also states that in 2020 over 17 million units of e-cigarettes were sold in retail stores over a four-week period — including marijuana vapes. This translates into hundreds of millions of vaping products added to the waste stream every year.
Some people originally thought vapes would be an environmental boon, since people wouldn’t be tossing cigarette butts on the ground. But vaping presents its own environmental problems including toxic chemicals, increased plastic, and electronic waste.
Components of a Vape
Most vapes have:
- A cartridge that holds the e-liquid
- E-liquid containing propylene glycol, flavoring, and nicotine or THC
- An atomizer that heats the liquid
- A microprocessor
- A rechargeable battery (usually lithium-ion)
- A sensor
- An LED light
- A mouthpiece that activates the device when the user inhales
All those components together make safe disposal complicated.
Mixed Materials Mean a Recycling Headache
Vapes are made of a mix of materials — usually a combination of glass, metal, and plastic. This combination makes it difficult to separate out any single material that might be recyclable. For this reason alone, vaping products are not accepted in curbside recycling.
What’s in That E-Liquid?
The liquid in e-cigarettes contains nicotine and a host of other chemicals. Marijuana vapes contain sticky THC oil, which makes recycling nearly impossible. Chemicals in e-liquid ingredients vary widely among manufacturers and regulation of these ingredients is lacking.
The EPA considers nicotine an acute hazardous waste material. Nicotine can be poisonous to children, pets, and wildlife. If discarded as litter, the nicotine can contaminate water systems. Don’t dispose of e-liquid in your garbage or recycling bin and never rinse it down the drain.
Vaping and Electronic Waste
The electronics in vapes also pose a recycling problem. Theoretically, you could separate the electronic components and bring them to a facility that accepts e-waste. Yet in these small devices, electronic parts such as coils and sensors are mixed in with plastic and glass. It’s difficult and sometimes impossible to separate them out for recycling. Disassembling a vape also poses the risk of spilling the e-liquid.
Lithium-ion batteries are a bigger problem. They are classified as hazardous waste and need to be handled properly. Under certain conditions, lithium-ion batteries can catch fire or explode. Improper disposal of batters can harm consumers and sanitation workers.
Confusion Around Vape Disposal
Like so many hard-to-recycle items, there is little guidance from manufacturers or the government for how to responsibly dispose of vaping products.
Not surprisingly, people who use vaping products are quite confused about proper disposal. The Truth Initiative asked a group of 15- to 24-year-olds how they disposed of vape products. Over 50% of respondents reported putting empty vapes either in the trash or in curbside recycling. A majority cited lack of clarity and convenience as barriers to proper disposal.
There aren’t many options for recycling vapes. TerraCycle offers vape recycling through their mail-in Zero Waste Box. However, these boxes won’t actually leave you with zero vape waste. TerraCycle does not accept lithium-ion batteries or toxic materials. They also don’t accept cartridges, ruling out quite a bit of vape waste. The cost for an 11”x11”x 20” box is $135.
A 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.
Another option for at least turning in vapes is through the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The DEA hosts prescription drug take-back events to prevent prescription drug abuse. In 2020, they added 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 recycling location for lithium-ion batteries near you — just enter your ZIP code.
FDA Advice on Vape Disposal
- Check with state and local resources for regulations and hazardous waste collection sites.
- Seal used vapes and keep no longer than 90 days before disposal.
- Do not rinse e-liquid from cartridges — it will contaminate water.
- Avoid getting e-liquid on skin, as it can be toxic.
- Keep vapes away from kids and pets — the nicotine can be poisonous.
Find a location for HHW disposal near you.
Use Your Voice To Request a Solution
Ultimately, the onus of proper vape disposal falls on the consumer. What can you do? If your favorite brand doesn’t offer a takeback program for recycling their spent vape products, ask the company to provide one. You can also start a petition or contact your city and state representatives and tell them you support extended producer responsibility laws that require manufacturers to support recycling the products they make at their end of life. Your voice may help make a difference.