Colorado tops the list for e-cigarette use among youth and the environment isn’t happy

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Lindsay Fox via Wikimedia Commons

Out of 37 states, Colorado students rank at the top of the list for e-cigarette use.

 That’s according to a 2018 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study, which also found that more than 3.6 million middle and high school students in the U.S. had used e-cigarettes within the past 30 days of being surveyed.  

On its own, the increasing number of youth who are vaping is a concerning problem. But with this spike in vaping across the U.S. comes an unforeseen negative impact on the environment as vape products are not being disposed of or recycled correctly.  

To vaporize liquid nicotine, vapes and e-cigarettes have two main components that are detrimental to the environment: the cartridges containing nicotine and the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. 

Lithium-ion batteries in landfills contribute to the growing amount of electronic waste (e-waste), discarded electronic products such as televisions, cameras and cell phones. Like other e-waste products, materials from lithium-ion batteries can leach into the environment, allowing toxins such as cobalt to enter the waste stream.

“When the device is no longer working or the user is ready to dispose, the first step is to review local rules for electronic waste disposal,” says Sean Burchill, western account manager at the battery recycling company Call2Recycle. “Due to their containing lithium-ion batteries, vaporizer pens should never be thrown in the garbage.”

Likewise, the nicotine from vape cartridges in landfills can enter the waste stream leading to unprecedented exposure to the addictive substance. As is commonly known, nicotine can impose negative effects on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, as well as lead to a decreased immune response and potentially cancer.

Exposure to the toxins in vape products can negatively affect resources such as water and crops, wildlife and people. To limit these impacts, the Boulder County Hazardous Material Management Facility (HMMF) accepts vape products for disposal. 

When vape products arrive at HMMF, the nicotine components are separated from the battery and shipped out for incineration as a hazardous material. Once disassembled, the lithium-ion batteries are collected from HMMF by Call2Recycle. 

Batteries from vape products can be used in the manufacturing of new products such as silverware, pots, pans, golf clubs and other stainless-steel appliances. Many of the batteries from vape products are recycled into new batteries.

“This process reduces the need to mine for virgin materials, conserves natural resources and diverts potentially hazardous materials from landfills,” Burchill says. 

While lithium-ion batteries are known to be more environmentally friendly than older types of batteries, harvesting of materials to create them has proven controversial. One of the main elements, cobalt, releases a toxic dust during the mining process, which has drawn the most scrutiny in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the material is mined by hand. The long-term consequences of high exposure to cobalt are still unknown but may led to respiratory problems and birth defects, health officials say. 

E-cigarette and vape production companies offer very little instruction on how to dispose of their products when they reach the end of their life. Employees at HMMF and Call2Recycle have tried to educate the public on disposing these products in a safe and sustainable way by posting flyers at vape shops.

Shelly Fuller, a program manager at HMMF, is also looking to young people to combat the negative environmental effects of improperly disposed vape products. Although most school policy prohibits students from using e-cigarettes on school grounds, HMMF is providing schools with an accessible way to dispose of their vape products. 

“We’re working with the school districts to set up a collection bin in each of the middle and high schools for the next school year,” Fuller says. “We’re targeting that age group so that there is a disposal option for schools when they need to confiscate and dispose of these materials.”

The bins will also educate students on how to dispose of their vape products moving forward, making sure to encourage them to deliver their unwanted products to HMMF or similar facilities.

“Making battery recycling awareness and education part of the discussion can help alleviate risks tied to improper disposal by encouraging consumers to become responsible recyclers,” Burchill says. “If something can be recycled, it should be recycled.”    

This article previously incorrectly stated that lead and mercury are toxins in lithium-ion batteries. We apologize for the inconvenience.