Environment groups have called for urgent clarity and regulation to respond to an increase in hazardous waste from e-cigarettes as vaping becomes more popular.
The number of people using e-cigarettes doubled between 2016 and 2019, according to the federal government, with a survey showing more than 30% of 14- to 17-year-olds have tried vaping.
The head of Clean Up Australia, Pip Kiernan, said the sharp increase presented “a new and serious environmental issue” with volunteers discovering littered e-cigarettes “in increasing volumes”.
The founder of advocacy group No More Butts, Shannon Mead, said he was aware of schools “that now have buckets of confiscated vaping devices and are unclear what to do with them”.
Some local councils including the City of Sydney accept vapes in their e-waste collections, but many do not due to concerns about potential leaching of battery acid, lithium and nicotine. The devices have also been linked to explosions and fires.
Many product stewardship schemes do not accept e-cigarettes or can only process the battery. Disposable vapes often have an encapsulated battery that cannot be removed.
According to the New South Wales Environmental Protection Authority, many vaping stores do provide basic information on how to discard products but this is of limited use as regulations vary widely across the state.
Kiernan said there was an “urgent, overdue” need for standardised processes for the disposal of e-cigarette devices to reduce pollution.
“We need to set clear standards on environmentally responsible e-cigarette waste disposal and hold the industry accountable for adhering to them,” Kiernan said.
“They shouldn’t be disposed of in the general waste bin, or the recycling bin and absolutely not discarded in the environment where they can leach toxic metals, battery acid and nicotine and other chemicals into the soil.”
Mead suggested the federal government play a bigger role in regulation and ensure all products can be safely disposed.
“If affordability is a reason why so many people are taking up vaping, an increase in the sales price to cover the implementation of a refund scheme could also act as a deterrent,” Mead said.
The federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, supports reform although any action would require cooperation from state, territory and local governments.
“Every vape that goes into landfill dumps plastic, poisons, nicotine salts, heavy metals, lead, mercury, and flammable lithium-ion batteries into the environment that can take hundreds of years to degrade,” Plibersek said.
“The batteries can start fires in landfill and they are next to impossible to recycle because the plastic contains poison.”
The US-based hazardous waste firm PegEx has said proper disposal of an e-cigarette requires removing the filler material, rinsing it under running water until all nicotine residues are removed, and then wrapping it in a scrap of biodegradable material.
In 2021 a mine worker sustained severe burns to his leg when an e-cigarette spontaneously ignited in his pocket. The state government subsequently warned a similar explosion in an underground mine or near explosives could be catastrophic.
The Victorian smoking and health survey, conducted by the Cancer Council, found the number of adults vaping had nearly doubled from 154,895 in 2018-19 to 308,827 in 2022.
On 1 January Plibersek encouraged Australians to give up vaping as a new year resolution, claiming tobacco companies were intentionally marketing vape flavours and packaging that would appeal to a younger market.
“Obviously it’s bad for your health but it’s also terrible for the environment,” Plibersek said.