As disposable e-cigarettes grow in popularity, waste management systems are facing a new e-cigarette challenge: how to safely dispose of the millions of small battery-powered devices that are considered hazardous waste.
For years, the debate over e-cigarettes has largely centered on the risks to high school and middle school students, who are tempted by flavors like gummy bears, lemonade and watermelon.
However, the recent shift to non-refillable e-cigarettes has created new environmental dilemmas. Devices containing nicotine, lithium, or other metals cannot be reused or recycled.
Around the world, teens and adults buy millions of disposable e-cigarettes each month. With little official guidance, countries are finding their own ways to dispose of e-cigarettes collected from schools, universities, vape shops and other locations.
“We’re in a very strange regulatory environment where there’s no legal place to put these. And yet we know that tens of millions of single-use products end up in the trash every year. ,” said Yogi Hale Hendlin, a health and environment researcher at the institute. University of California, San Francisco, USA.
In late August, sanitation workers in Monroe County, New York, shipped more than 5,500 brightly colored e-cigarettes packed into 55-gallon steel drums. What is their destination? It will be melted down at a giant industrial waste incinerator in northern Arkansas.
Sending 350 pounds of e-cigarettes across the country to be burned and reduced to ashes may not seem environmentally friendly. But local officials say this is the only way to keep nicotine-filled devices out of sewers, waterways and landfills, where lithium batteries can catch fire.
“These are very insidious devices,” said Michael Garland, who directs the county’s environmental services. “They are a fire hazard and certainly an environmental pollutant if not managed properly.”
In other regions, the disposal process is expensive and complicated. In New York City, for example, authorities have confiscated hundreds of thousands of banned e-cigarettes from local stores, spending more than $1 each to destroy them.
The e-cigarette industry has avoided responsibility for the environmental impact of its products, while regulators have failed to force changes that would make e-cigarette components easier to recycle or reduce waste, say e-cigarette critics. they claim.
Possible changes include standards requiring e-cigarettes to be reusable and forcing manufacturers to fund take-back and recycling programs. New York, California, and several other U.S. states have enacted so-called expanded product liability laws for computers and other electronic devices. However, these laws do not cover e-cigarette products, and there are no comparable federal requirements for any industry.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous waste rules don’t apply to homes, meaning it’s legal for Americans to throw e-cigarettes in the trash at home. However, most businesses, schools, and government facilities are subject to EPA standards for how they handle hazardous chemicals such as nicotine, which the EPA considers “acute hazardous waste” because they can be toxic at high levels. It becomes.
In the United States, the push to control single-use e-cigarettes has come primarily from schools, which could face stricter regulations if they generate more than a few pounds of hazardous waste per month. For example, Monroe County schools pay $60 for each 1-gallon e-cigarette container. More than two-thirds of his e-cigarettes collected by the county come from schools.
“Our school confiscated a large amount of educational materials, so we were very relieved,” Garland said. “If you think about high schools across the country, they’re in a very difficult situation right now.”
The lithium found in e-cigarette batteries is the same highly sought-after metal used to power electric cars and cell phones. However, the amount used in e-cigarettes is too small to be recovered. Additionally, nearly all disposable e-cigarette batteries are soldered into the device, making it impractical to separate them for recycling.
Disposable e-cigarettes now account for about 53% of the multibillion U.S. e-cigarette market, more than doubling since 2020, according to U.S. government statistics.
Their rise is a study of unintended consequences.
In early 2020, the Food and Drug Administration banned nearly all flavors of reusable e-cigarettes like Juul, a cartridge-based device blamed for sparking a nationwide surge in underage vaping. Forbidden. But the policy does not apply to disposable products, opening the door to thousands of new types of fruit and candy-flavored e-cigarettes, almost all made in China.
In recent months, the FDA has begun trying to block imports of several major disposable brands, including Elf Bar and Esco Bar. Although regulators consider them illegal, they have not been able to prevent them from entering the United States, and the devices are now common in convenience stores, gas stations, and other establishments.
Brian King, director of the FDA’s tobacco division, said in a statement that the agency “continues to carefully consider the potential environmental impacts” of e-cigarette products.
Cost of confiscating disposable e-cigarettes
In 2020, New York City banned most types of e-cigarettes and banned flavors that might appeal to young people.
City officials conduct thousands of inspections a year, and last year issued more than 2,400 citations to corner stores and businesses selling illegally flavored products.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that hundreds of unlicensed marijuana stores sell THC vaping, a separate but related problem that has proliferated since New York legalized recreational marijuana.
Since last November, authorities have seized more than 449,000 e-cigarettes, according to city statistics. New York City is spending about $1,400 to dispose of each container of 1,200 e-cigarettes it confiscated, but many more remain in city storage lockers.
“I don’t think anyone has ever thought about these amounts in our communities,” said New York State Sheriff Anthony Miranda, who is leading the task force on the issue. “A tremendous amount of resources are being committed to this effort.”
Recent lawsuits against four major e-cigarette retailers aim to recoup some of the city’s costs.
For now, New Yorkers who smoke e-cigarettes can drop off their used e-cigarettes at city-sponsored waste collection events.
Ultimately, these e-cigs suffer a familiar fate. The e-cigarettes will be transported to Gum Springs, Arkansas, where they will be incinerated by Veolia, an international waste management company. The company has incinerated more than 1.6 million pounds of e-cigarette waste in recent years, mostly unsold inventory and discontinued products.
Veolia executives say burning e-cigarette lithium batteries can damage incinerators.
“Ideally, we don’t want to incinerate it because we have to incinerate it very slowly. But if we have to, we’ll do it,” said Bob Cappadona, head of the company’s environmental services division.
Veolia also handles e-cigarettes in Boulder County, Colorado, one of the only jurisdictions in the U.S. that actively recycles e-cigarette batteries and components.
Historically, Boulder has had one of the highest rates of teen e-cigarette use in the country, reaching nearly 33 percent in 2017.
“It was like someone flipped a switch. All of a sudden, e-cigarettes were everywhere,” Centaur High School principal Daniel Ryan said.
In early 2019, county officials began distributing boxes to schools to hold confiscated or discarded e-cigarettes. Last year, we collected 3,500 pieces.
County staff will separate devices by type and separate devices with removable batteries for recycling. Single-use products are packaged and sent to Veolia’s incinerator. Sherry Fuller, who leads the program, said managing e-cigarette waste has become more costly and labor intensive with the shift to single-use products.