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Chemicals from the device itself can end up in our blood, urine and saliva. (Image: Archi Banal)
Chemicals from the device itself can end up in our blood, urine and saliva. (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyOctober 17, 2022

The stratospheric rise of vape waste in Aotearoa

Chemicals from the device itself can end up in our blood, urine and saliva. (Image: Archi Banal)
Chemicals from the device itself can end up in our blood, urine and saliva. (Image: Archi Banal)

As the vaping industry grows exponentially, so too does the problem of all the detritus left behind. Alex Casey investigates. 

When she first started plogging – a Swedish portmanteau of “picking up (litter)” and “jogging” – Michelle Stronach-Marsh would occasionally come across curious and futuristic-looking plastic pods on her local Petone beach. “At first I thought I was finding USB sticks,” she chuckles over the phone. “My kids just laughed and laughed at me.” What Stronach-Marsh was actually picking up were discarded vapes and vape cartridges, about one or two a month. Six years later, she is finding up to 10 pieces of vape waste a day on that same five kilometre run. 

As the vaping industry grows exponentially both here and abroad, so too does the problem of vape waste. With an estimated 4.3 million vapers in the UK, research has found that 3 million vape parts are thrown away per week, amounting to two vapes thrown away every second. As reported by Sky News, this waste alone contains enough lithium to make batteries for 1,200 electric cars. “We can’t be throwing these materials away,” said Mark Miodownik, professor at University College London. “It really is madness in a climate emergency.”

In Aotearoa there is yet to be any official data released on our levels of vape waste, but there are a few anecdotal indications that we are headed in a similar direction. For example, on my walks to work through Kingsland, 43rd coolest suburb in the world, I encounter a piece of discarded vape waste on the ground almost every day. Auckland Council waste planning manager Sarah Le Claire confirms that this is not an isolated phenomenon, and that they have “observed an increase in the volume of e-cigarette and vape waste in the environment” across the region. 

Vapes that I have seen. (Photos: Alex Casey)

Over at Litter Intelligence, Aotearoa’s national litter monitoring programme, they have also started to see an increase in vape waste. Vape components have appeared in 454 of their 1,200 beach litter surveys. “When we first started, vapes barely featured,” explains Ben Knight, litter intelligence manager. “It’s amazing how quickly our behaviour has changed around consumption of nicotine.” Down on Petone beach, plogger Stronach-Marsh has seen the same trend. “I don’t find as many lighters as I used to, whereas every single day now, I find at least two bits of vape packaging.” 

Vapes by the ocean

Graeme Taylor from DOC has been working with seabirds for decades, and first encountered the shocking impact of plastic waste on their lives nearly 30 years ago. Travelling to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 1993, he remembers the scene of “dead birds scattered everywhere” around an albatross colony. “I was absolutely gobsmacked when I saw the damage that it was causing,” he says, recalling the corpse of a decayed bird that had a stomach full of “children’s toys, cigarette lighters and all sorts of odd plastic shapes”.

Given that we have since doubled our plastic production globally, Taylor says the risk to our seabirds has only increased. Last year, a pied shag died in Wellington Zoo after being found “weak and emaciated” by the SPCA. Upon x-ray, it was discovered that the bird had swallowed a vape pen whole. “Our team suspect he wouldn’t have been able to eat for days before he came in and would’ve suffered from serious metal and nicotine poisoning,” Wellington Zoo said at the time. “A sad reminder to please always tidy up after yourself and make sure these lovely birds don’t mistake your rubbish for food.” 

The Pied Shag ingested a vape whole. Photo: Facebook

Taylor hasn’t personally encountered a bird that ingested vape waste yet, but says it wouldn’t surprise him if this is happening more often. “We know that plastic litter of any sort eventually makes it out to the sea, through waterways and drains,” he explains. “Once it drifts out into the ocean, it doesn’t break down and therefore seabirds of different sizes will have access to it.” He says larger seabirds such as the albatross and the giant petrel are particularly vulnerable, as they are able to swallow bigger objects floating on the sea surface. 

A missing piece of the puzzle, Taylor says, is whether vape components actually float or not. “We used to see a lot of birds ingesting cigarette lighters because there’s an air pocket inside them which allows them to float on the surface,” he says. “What I don’t know is whether the vapes have a trapped air component, or if they’re just light enough that they will be buoyant on the water.” 

Having amassed a collection of disused vape pods from Kingsland gutters and colleagues alike, I attempted to see if they would indeed sink or float when suspended in water. The results were mixed: “Haiz” pods all floated on the surface, whereas “Alt” pods appeared more likely to sink over time. 

A ‘does it float’ experiment. (Photos: Alex Casey)

Regardless of whether they float and impact seabirds, or sink and impact the seabed, discarded vapes getting in our waterways are unequivocally bad news. Le Claire from Auckland Council says they are unlikely to be collected by litter traps along the way – these are reserved for larger items like plastic bottles – so are likely to find their way out to the ocean. There, if they aren’t eaten by seabirds, “the contaminants will gradually leach out into the surrounding environment”.

Little vape fires everywhere

It’s not just the environment that vape waste is hurting. Several local news stories have highlighted instances where vapes have combusted and injured people, including a 2019 kitchen explosion in Christchurch, a Kaitaia house fire in January 2022 and just last week a Dunedin man was sent to hospital with burns after a vape battery caught on fire in his pocket. In January it was revealed that vape-related injuries reported to ACC had increased eight-fold over five years, rising from nine in 2016 to 72 in 2021. 

This is a risk which Le Claire says extends to those on the front line of waste collection. “One bin run team came across a burnt poly bin liner and the shopkeeper in the adjacent shop advised it had caught on fire from the battery of a vaping device,” says Le Claire. There is a real risk that comes in devices such as disposable vapes being placed in kerbside bins, she explains, as the waste comes under pressure when it is compacted. “This is where the batteries can get pierced by other sharp material in the truck and ignite, causing a fire within the waste.” 

Le Claire says fires in Auckland Council rubbish trucks caused by batteries are an “increasingly common occurrence”. As a result, contractors have had to consider new health and safety precautions when using mobile compactor units out on the road, including the constant use of PPE in the event that a battery ignites during the compaction process. 

How to kill a vape

Another one of the major issues with vape disposal is that even those that get thrown out “properly” – ie in the general waste bin – will still end up in landfill. As Le Claire explains, vape waste poses a particular problem because it falls somewhere between e-waste and hazardous waste. “The components of the pen itself can include a lithium-ion battery which needs to be treated as e-waste when discarded, but the cartridge contains nicotine and heavy metals such as lead, tin and nickel which are poisonous and need to be managed as hazardous.” 

A skyline of landfill. (Photo: RNZ)

After her plogging runs in Petone, Stronach-Marsh generally disposes of three large rubbish bags in the council skip, including bits of discarded vape waste. “It’s horrible that the only thing that I can do is put them into landfill, because I can’t recycle them,” she says. “I just feel like I’m just shifting the problem perpetually. At least I’m removing the harm to wildlife or birds, but I’m really just shifting the issue.” She wants the vape industry, and all other industries creating waste that can’t be recycled kerbside, to take responsibility for that waste. 

There appear to be few in-store recycling options for consumers in New Zealand outside of locally-owned brand Vapo. Through the TerraCycle programme, consumers are encouraged to bring in their disused vapes and cartridges to Vapo stores, from where they are shipped to a private processing plant in Australia. There, they are washed, separated, broken down into different materials, and recycled into products such as outdoor furniture and decking, plastic shipping pallets, watering cans, storage containers and bins. 

“With anything nowadays, there’s a business responsibility to make sure your products aren’t necessarily going to a landfill if you can help it,” says Fiona Kerr, head of brand and customer experience at Vapo. The programme has been running since 2019 and has collected 693kg of vape waste – including from brands they don’t stock. “Now that doesn’t sound like a lot in the grand scheme of things, but it does when you consider that these things are incredibly light,” says Kerr. 

Although Vapo’s VapeCycle programme appears to be the most successful industry-led solution, it still contains hurdles. If you can’t access a store drop-off point, the at-home mail option requires logging in to the Terracycle website and downloading and printing a label. Due to the hazardous nature of the batteries, there is a postal limit of four vapes per parcel. Kerr says they are currently assessing the viability of at-home collection bins – similar to Nespresso – and are one day envisioning “mass collection units” at places like convenience stores and petrol stations.

“But this is a negotiation at some very, very top levels of retail,” she adds. 

When the smoke clears 

Jessica Kitchen, a 20 year-old fashion student from AUT, says that almost nobody her age shops at Vapo because of the high price point, choosing instead to shop at dairies or online. “I don’t think most people know about their recycling stations and stuff like that, because it’s just not very mainstream,” she says. Having started vaping in high school – “someone got me to try it one time and I kind of just got stuck on it after that “ – she uses a refillable vape which requires new liquid to be purchased every few months. 

Kitchen says a big problem is that most people her age are in denial about the fact they are addicted to vaping at all, so won’t pay for the more expensive (but less impactful) refillable options. “I think there’s a real psychological aspect to it. When people are buying disposable vapes, it doesn’t feel like they’re committing to vaping,” she explains. “I also know a lot of people who would express themselves as environmentally conscious and not buy any new clothes and stuff like that, but then wouldn’t think twice about getting a disposable vape.”

Vape cocoons discovered on Central Auckland houseplants. Photos: Jessica Kitchen

As part of her fashion degree, she is working on a project which she hopes will get people to think twice about their vape waste. She’s been collecting all of the vape waste created by her and her friends and experimenting with crochet, creating cocoons with them and attaching them to houseplants. Eventually, she hopes she can figure out how to turn them into fabric, or perhaps even a garment. “I was drawn to humans’ relationship with nature,” she explains. “How do we even intertwine with anything these days?”

Kitchen has noticed different generations have different reactions to her work. “People my age look at it and say, ‘That’s kind of funny’ or ‘That’s so random’,” she says. “But older generations seem to find it kind of disturbing.” She knows that her work isn’t really providing a solution to the problem, but hopes it will get people thinking about how widespread vaping – and its subsequent waste problem – really is in Aotearoa. “It is really important for people to know just how common vaping is, especially in Gen Z,” she says. 

“The waste is just one aspect of it, but what we’ve really got is a whole generation that is addicted to vaping.” 

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