Discarded e-cigarettes contain toxic chemicals that can leach into water and are combustible if not handled carefully. But despite growing evidence of their danger, neither the companies producing the vapor pens, nor agencies responsible for waste management are coming up with a good way to deal with the source of trash.
Cigarette butts themselves are an enormous environmental problem. In the U.S., they make up an estimated 30 percent of the total number of littered items in waterways, shorelines, and on land. The butts are made of plastic fibers that do not biodegrade, and they contain toxic chemicals such as arsenic, nicotine, and heavy metals that can leach into water, kill small animals like plankton and water fleas, and be mistaken for food by larger ones.
But when people toss spent e-cigarettes on the ground, they pose another set of environmental dangers. E-cigarettes, handheld electronic devices that heat up liquid nicotine to form a smoke-free, tar-free vapor, are made up of five parts: a mouthpiece, a cartridge or “pod” that holds the liquid, a vaporizing chamber, a microprocessor, and a lithium-ion battery.
If damaged or exposed to extreme heat, the lithium-ion batteries in e-cigarettes can explode. The batteries have triggered several fires in garbage trucks and processing facilities across the Bay Area in the past few years, including two in Oakland last year, several in San Francisco, and one particularly large one at Rethink Waste, a garbage facility in San Carlos, in 2016. The company is still working to repair the damage to their electrical systems.
Brad Drda, Regional Environmental Manager at Recology, the garbage collection service in San Francisco, says lithium-ion batteries pose the biggest risk in waste facilities, where they can be crushed and damaged by large tractors and machinery.
According to California law, lithium-ion batteries, like those in e-cigarettes, contain material classified as household hazardous waste and cannot be thrown in the garbage. But companies that accept used electronics like cellphones and computers won’t take e-cigarettes, because their small size makes them disadvantageous for recycling.
Meanwhile, the microprocessors in e-cigarettes are made with several harmful chemicals, including lead and mercury, which can potentially leach into water and soil, becoming toxic to humans and wildlife.
But again, drop-off hazardous waste facilities won’t accept e-cigarette waste because they have to be taken apart to remove the batteries for recycling. According to several YouTube tutorials, that’s a multi-step process involving a screwdriver and one’s mouth.
Despite these known hazards, there are no clear guidelines or regulations governing disposal of e-cigarettes and nicotine pods in California. E-cigarette makers do not offer instructions. One popular disposable e-cigarette brand, Blu, contains a lithium ion battery yet advises consumers on its website that they can be thrown in the garbage.
The state has yet to help either. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control, the government agency that decides what is considered toxic or hazardous and enforces the proper handling of such materials, said in an email that they are not currently testing e-cigarettes and could not answer questions about them. “This is an example of a kind of product that just showed up, and obviously not a whole lot of thought was given to its end-of-life,” said Drda.