Environmental groups are calling for urgent action against hazardous e-cigarette waste

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Environmental groups have called for urgent clarity and regulation to respond to an increase in hazardous waste from e-cigarettes, as vaping becomes more popular.

According to the federal government, the number of people using e-cigarettes doubled between 2016 and 2019. A survey shows that more than 30% of 14 to 17 year olds have tried vaping.

Clean Up Australia’s head, Pip Kiernan, said the sharp increase posed “a new and serious environmental problem” with volunteers discovering strewn e-cigarettes “in increasing quantities”.

Related: Criminalizing nicotine vaping in Australia could do ‘further harm’, drug experts warn

The founder of advocacy group No More Butts, Shannon Mead, said he was aware of schools “who now have buckets of confiscated vaping devices and don’t know what to do with them”.

Some councils, including the City of Sydney, accept vapes in their e-waste collections, but many do not because of concerns about possible leaching of battery acid, lithium and nicotine. The devices have also been linked to explosions and fires.

Many product management programs do not accept e-cigarettes or can only handle the battery. Disposable vapes often have an encapsulated battery that cannot be removed.

According to the New South Wales Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), many vape shops provide basic product disposal information, but this is of limited use as regulations vary widely across the state.

Kiernan said there was an “urgent, overdue” need for standardized e-cigarette disposal processes to reduce pollution.

“We need to set clear standards for the environmentally sound disposal of e-cigarette waste and hold the industry accountable for adhering to them,” Kiernan said.

“They should not be disposed of in the general waste or recycling bin and absolutely not disposed of in the environment where they can leach toxic metals, battery acid and nicotine and other chemicals into the soil.”

Mead suggested that the federal government play a greater role in regulation and ensuring that all products can be safely disposed of.

“If affordability is a reason why so many people vape, an increase in the retail price to cover the implementation of a refund scheme could also be a deterrent,” said Mead.

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek supports reform, although any action requires the cooperation of state, territory and local governments.

“Every vape that ends up in landfill dumps plastic, toxins, nicotine salts, heavy metals, lead, mercury and flammable lithium-ion batteries into the environment that take hundreds of years to break down,” Plibersek said.

“The batteries can cause a fire in the landfill and they are almost impossible to recycle because the plastic contains poison.”

US-based hazardous waste company PegEx has said that proper disposal of an e-cigarette requires removing the filler material, rinsing it under running water until all nicotine residue has been removed, and then biodegrading it into a piece material to be wrapped.

In 2021, a miner suffered severe burns to his leg when an e-cigarette spontaneously ignited in his pocket. The state government subsequently warned that 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 that the number of adults vaping had nearly doubled from 154,895 in 2018-19 to 308,827 in 2022.

On January 1, Plibersek encouraged Australians to quit vaping as a New Year’s resolution, claiming that tobacco companies were deliberately releasing vape flavors and packaging that would appeal to a younger market.

“Of course it’s bad for your health, but it’s also terrible for the environment,” Plibersek said.

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