Vapes, otherwise known as electronic cigarettes, e-cigarettes, or personal vaporisers, are devices that simulate smoking without using tobacco. Most vaping devices have a battery-powered electric element that heats a liquid (known as e-liquids) to produce an aerosol which is inhaled by the user and then expelled into the air in a large cloud of often sweet-smelling vapour.
The waste vapes create, however, is anything but sweet. In recent years, vape usage has noticeably increased in Australia and across the globe (especially amongst young people)1, creating a new waste stream that contains materials that are both hazardous and potentially valuable when dealt with correctly.
What are the environmental impacts of vapes?
While there is little Australia-specific data available on vape waste, the United Nations Institute of Training and Research (UNITAR) estimates 844 million vapes were discarded in 20222. In the UK alone, it's estimated two disposable vapes are thrown away every second. Over a year, this is enough lithium (from the batteries) to make approximately 1,200 electric car batteries3.
In Australia, e-cigarette sales are skyrocketing (increasing from $28.3 million in 2015 to $98.1 million in 2020)4 with little thought from manufacturers and brands into what will happen to the devices when consumers are ready to throw them away. The waste management sector is having to quickly come to terms with a new hazardous waste stream and, to top it off, a quick Google of “how to recycle vapes” reveals an abundance of misinformation and incomplete, unclear, and even dangerous advice.
As a result, we’re seeing vapes littered in streets, parks, and beaches (Clean Up Australia estimate one in five clean-up sites found at least one vape in 2023) or chucked into recycling and garbage bins where they can start fires in collection trucks, waste management facilities, and landfills. Besides the fire risk presented by vapes, throwing away these products also wastes the valuable and finite materials used to make them like lithium and aluminium. Vapes also contain toxic substances (such as the e-liquids which contain all sorts of chemicals), and these hazardous materials can make their way into our environment and waterways when they are littered or dumped in landfill.
Are vapes banned in Australia?
The Australian Government has stated it will work with states and territories to ban single-use disposable vapes5. Legislation has not yet been developed and the government has not provided a timeline for when the ban will come into effect. UPDATE: The Australian Government has announced the importation of disposable single-use vapes will be banned from 1 January 20246.
The government has also proposed stronger regulation of all e-cigarettes including new controls on their importation, contents, and packaging. Currently, vapes containing nicotine can only be purchased with a prescription from a doctor. However, a lack of regulation and enforcement has created a thriving black market, both under the counter and online7. To evade seizure by authorities, some manufacturers have simply removed the word ‘nicotine’ from their packaging without altering the contents of the vapes8. The blanket-ban on single-use vapes aims to rectify the situation by stopping the import of non-prescription vapes and only permitting pharmacies to sell them9.
Can vapes be recycled?
Technically, vapes can be recycled, but they can only be recycled through specialised recycling programs or services. That means if you put your old vape in your recycling bin at home or work, it absolutely will not be recycled. And worse yet, it could potentially start a fire. That’s because vapes contain a battery and no batteries of any kind should ever be put in household and workplace recycling and garbage bins. Even dead batteries can spark and ignite and vapes have been known to explode in recycling trucks, damaging vehicles and threatening the safety of drivers10.
Unfortunately, that means your used vape shouldn’t be put in the garbage bin either, unless you are able to remove the battery. More on this later.
How to recycle or safely dispose of vapes
If you’re wondering what you should do with your used vape, the first question to ask yourself is “what type of vape is it?”. This will determine what recycling and disposal services are available to you.
Reusable vapes vs single-use vapes
Reusable vapes allow consumers to recharge the battery and top up the e-liquid. Many, but not all, are also designed for disassembly with removable and replaceable components. In these types of vapes, the e-liquids and batteries can be taken out for disposal and/or replacement. If you can remove the battery from your vape, see disposal and recycling options for reusable vapes below.
Single-use vapes are designed to be thrown away once the e-liquid or ‘vape juice’ inside has been used up. If your vape is closed up with no easy access points to take the vape apart, it’s likely a single-use vape – see disposal options for single-use vapes below.
What’s better for the environment – reusable or single-use vapes?
Using a vape of any kind is harmful to the environment, as is any product that is technically unnecessary. However, many people rely on vapes to kick their cigarette habit or to relieve stress and anxiety (despite evidence that vaping can have harmful health effects). If you need or want to use a vape, a reusable vape with a removable battery is a better option than a single-use vape because it is easier to recycle and safely dispose of its various components.
Reusing the same vape again and again also creates less waste and requires fewer valuable resources to be extracted from the ground than single-use vapes. And reducing the production of new vapes by reusing the same one multiple times means less water is used and fewer greenhouse gas emissions are released into the atmosphere.
How to recycle reusable vapes
Reusable vapes are made up of various components such as a lithium-ion battery, cartridge, reusable pod, and e-liquid. Not all of these are recyclable, but there are safe disposal options to keep toxic substances out of our environment.
Step 1: Figure out if you can remove the battery from the vape. If you can, the battery can be dropped off for recycling at one of the thousands of battery collection points across the country. Put sticky tape over the terminals (the parts of the battery where electricity is produced) to prevent the battery from sparking and starting a fire.
Australia has a national recycling scheme for batteries called B-cycle, which accepts the batteries from vapes, but under no circumstance should the rest of the vape be put in the recycling collection bin as they can contain toxic materials and must be disposed of separately (see step 2). Batteries that are recycled through B-cycle will recover various materials including precious metals, which are used to make new batteries and other products.
Step 2: Vape cartridges, reusable pods, and e-liquids can be safely disposed of at your local pharmacy through the Return Unwanted Medicines (RUM) Project. While items collected through the RUM Project are not reused or recycled, they are disposed of safely and responsibly, ensuring any hazardous or toxic materials are prevented from entering the environment by leaching into soil and waterways via landfill. Vape batteries should never be placed in RUM collection bins as they could start a fire.
The reason vape components (excluding batteries) are accepted at some pharmacies is because many vapes contain nicotine and can be prescribed by doctors. Even if it’s not specified on the packaging, the vape might still contain nicotine and other chemicals, and should therefore be disposed of responsibly. The RUM Project advised Planet Ark that while these vape components are technically accepted by the RUM Project, some pharmacies may not accept them, so it’s best to call in advance.
Step 3: So, now you’ve recycled the battery and safely disposed of the vape components, you may be left with an outer container. It’s safe to put this container in your garbage bin, but you may be wondering if you’re able to recycle it. In the absence of the Australasian Recycling Label (the only evidence-based recycling label in Australia), it’s difficult to know whether the vape container can be recycled using our current infrastructure, so it’s best to put it in the garbage bin.
Single-use vape disposal and recycling options
Single-use vapes will no longer be available once legislation banning them is complete and in effect6. In the meantime, vapers who use single-use vapes need to know how they should get rid of them, but unfortunately, the answer is not very clear.
Single-use vapes aren’t designed to be disassembled, which means removing the battery for recycling requires someone to manually and carefully take it apart. Many of these vapes have been made cheaply and in countries with different safety standards to Australia, and as lithium-ion batteries are highly flammable and can explode, it is not advisable to remove the battery yourself.
Dismantling a vape is a job for a professional such as Jamieson Mclachlan, General Manager of Perth Chemical Specialists. Speaking with Planet Ark, Jamieson explains that without proper safety controls in place, dismantling vapes can be dangerous, which is why he chooses to do so underneath a fume hood while wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
“The ‘vape juice’ itself is a hazardous waste and must be handled accordingly,” says Jamieson.
“It’s not uncommon to see these cheaply made batteries short circuit while cutting the wires that are connected to the terminals and removing them from the vapes.”
Perth recycling options for vapes
If you’re located in the Perth metropolitan area, Jamieson’s vape recycling service via Perth Chemical Specialists is available to you for a fee, but as they are a small team there is a minimum quantity they will accept (minimum spend including collection is $165), making it unfeasible for the average person. Jamieson’s clientele are mostly schools that need to dispose of large quantities of vapes that have been confiscated from students.
Ecocycle’s Perth facility accepts all kinds of vapes for recycling from the public and businesses, however, there is a fee and a minimum spend of $100.
Sydney and Melbourne recycling options for vapes
City of Sydney residents can drop off all kinds of vapes at Recycling Stations (located at numerous libraries and community centres across Sydney), the Ultimo Recycling Pop-up and Recycle It Saturday events.
The City of Casey (south of Melbourne) has two free vape recycling stations for public use located at Casey Aquatic and Recreation Centre (ARC) and Melanie's Recycle and Community Collection Hub. Both single-use and reusable vapes are accepted.
For residents in some LGAs in Sydney and Melbourne, RecycleSmart offers a recycling pick-up service that includes single-use and reusable vapes. Some councils pay for this service so it is free for their residents. People living in council areas that have not partnered with RecycleSmart will need to pay for the recycling service themselves. According to RecycleSmart, its partner recycler dismantles the vapes into various components (mouthpiece, cartridge, heating element, microprocessor, battery, and in some cases LED light) which are then sent to downstream recyclers for further processing. Plastics and metals are recovered and processed into raw materials so they can be used in the manufacture of new products. The liquid wastes are neutralised and purified by adding different chemicals to them before being sent to a draining system.
Canberra recycling and disposal options
Canberra has two resource management centres that residents can use to drop off their hazardous waste. All kinds of vapes are accepted at these centres for safe disposal.
Recycling and disposal options in other areas of Australia
Ecocycle accepts all kinds of vapes for recycling from the public and businesses, however, there is a fee and a minimum spend of $100. Ecocycle has facilities in Adelaide, Brisbane, Launceston, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, and Auckland in New Zealand.
Some councils may accept vapes at Community Recycling Centres or at recycling drop-off events – check directly with your council.
The unfortunate reality is, most Australians do not have access to safe disposal or recycling services for single-use vapes. It’s not safe to put them in the garbage bin, but there are also very few drop-off points or collection services available. Vapes aren’t included in e-waste recycling schemes such as B-cycle and the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme, and manufacturers of vapes are not required to supply their consumers with recycling services via a product stewardship scheme.
This is why it’s best to avoid purchasing single-use vapes, opting for a reusable device with a removable battery instead (see above for how to recycle reusable vapes).
If you need to dispose of a single-use vape but you’re not sure how, call your council for advice.
If you are aware of any other recycling and safe disposal options available to the public, please let us know by emailing email@example.com
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