Discarded vapes.
Vapes contain carcinogens and heavy metals that can become toxic when mixed with soil and water. Image by HANDOUT/SUPPLIED
  • environmental issue

Calls mount for national solution to toxic vape waste

Tracey Ferrier September 30, 2023

The millions of Australians who vape are leaving the nation with a toxic mountain of waste and so far there’s no national strategy to deal with it.

Campaigners say it’s time for the federal government to force manufacturers, importers and retailers to take responsibility for the vaping industry’s waste, given the serious threats it poses to human and environmental health.

Clean Up Australia says consumers are confused about how to responsibly dispose of their used products, which are variously classified as electronic waste, or hazardous waste, depending on where you are in Australia.

As a result, they end up in general waste bins or recycling bins and are increasingly discarded as litter in the environment.

That’s a big problem given they contain carcinogens and heavy metals that can become highly toxic when mixed with soil and water. When they enter the food chain they expose humans and other life forms to potential harm.

The lithium-ion batteries embedded in vaping products also contain toxic components and are being blamed for an increasing number of hazardous fires at landfill sites across the nation.

Clean Up Australia chair Pip Kiernan says the scale of the waste stream is clearly vast – a report by the NSW environmental watchdog last year said vape sales had climbed from $28.3 million in 2015 to $98.1 million in 2020.

And federal Health Minister Mark Butler, who’s promised a crackdown on illegal, black-market nicotine vapes and disposable vapes, estimates Australia has two million vapers.

Ms Kiernan says it cannot be left to users to navigate the complexities of how local councils classify the waste, and then work out what to do with it.

“It’s a mess and it’s no wonder they are ending up as litter. There is an urgent need for national consistency. It shouldn’t be this hard.”

Ms Kiernan wants a mandatory solution that forces responsibility onto all players in the vaping industry and favours something like the highly successful container deposit schemes in place around the country.

“The consumer pays 10 cents when they buy a drink, and they get it back when they return the beverage container. So there’s a cash incentive for consumers to do it, and it’s very clear how to do it.

“And in that instance, the beverage companies are responsible for that – financially.”

The waste industry also wants the government to enforce action.

“These products are starting fires, they are putting our workers at risk, they are littering our environment and they are a danger to our kids,” says Gayle Sloan, CEO of Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia.

“It’s only logical that the companies which make these things should be responsible for their disposal and perhaps that could be through their point of sale at places like chemists or tobacconists.”

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says the federal government is trying to drive down vaping rates with stronger laws, including a ban on disposable vapes.

“We will continue working with state, territory and local governments on better managing waste,” she told AAP.

Policies and regulations on waste are the responsibility of state and territory governments but the federal government can take a leadership role.

It’s done that in the past, helping state and territory environment ministers lock in reforms to ensure packaging waste is minimised in the first place, and where it is used, is designed to be recovered, reused, recycled, or reprocessed.

The Queensland Parliament’s Health and Environment Committee recently tested 17 e-liquids available from retailers around the state. 

Every sample contained nicotine, toxic heavy metals including arsenic, lead, mercury, nickel, chromium, antimony, aluminium, iron and nickel, along with known carcinogens like formaldehyde.