Do We Recycle Vapes?

We have all done it, scraped as much peanut butter or mayonnaise as possible out of the jar, and then simply tossed the smelly, cruddy jar into the recycling. Someone must clean that before it goes through, we may think to ourselves. No. No one does. Recycling centers often do not include cleaning facilities anymore. No staff clean the items as they move through the center. These days, there is too much moving too fast.

Recycling facilities enforce stricter rules on what can and cannot be thrown into the bin nowadays due to the sheer volume of waste they receive. Starting this year, my local recycling service disallowed all glass. Our waste management company cited poor cleanliness as one of the reasons they are discontinuing service to glass goods.

Granted, our haphazard cleaning efforts and general lack of concern when it comes to recyclables is not the only reason for recycling restrictions. Governments and businesses grow concerned over exactly what we attempt to recycle. The things we throw away today are more complex than a jam jar. With the best of intentions, maybe you toss your old vape mod in the recycling and hope for the best. It is glass, plastic, and metal, after all.

Recycling centers are mostly automated these days, but the sheer amount of waste to sort often includes non-recyclable items (credit: Republic Services)

What’s Being Tossed Out

We are throwing away more complex goods, like small electronics. Sleeker, more compact devices, global electronic consumerism (a la e-commerce), and planned obsolescence (upgrading your phone annually, for example) are just a few of the ways we have developed a problem with what the EPA and other national agencies around the world are calling electronic waste, or e-waste.

E-waste is exactly what it sounds like. We develop or improve electronic technologies to (rapidly) replace the older, outdated devices. Yet, to dispose of older technology – especially in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner – is a complex problem There are limited accessible ways to recycle something like a lithium-ion battery, for example. In a culture where more of our trash is coming from consumer electronics, disposable vape pens now account for part of the rising global e-waste concern.

Working Towards Solutions

Forbes reported that sustainability consulting firm, Circonomy Solutions, is researching ways vapes can be disassembled for recycling. Besides e-waste, vapes also contain glass, aluminum, and steel. John Trujillo, Principal of Circonomy Solutions, told Forbes that “[a]luminum and steel are the valuable components in these vape pens, but there are also batteries…and glass.” One problem is that “[g]lass is not a valuable commodity. It will not pay for itself,” says Trujillo.

Many objects are simply not worth recycling. Even a 1:1 ratio for the material itself does not cover overhead and expenses to recycle an item. The core economic issue is to what Trujillo refers. It is more expensive to recycle glass than to produce new glass, currently. The environment is impacted while we await a long-term resolution from garbology experts and municipalities.

How To Help

The three Rs of eco-friendly behavior, as many of us learned, are reduce, reuse, and recycle. To reduce waste requires a little more up front investment. The straightforward solution is to get a good mod and a refillable tank. Coils and empty juice vials are the only trash in this case, with the benefit of choosing from a wide variety of flavored e-liquids.

Reuse, in the case of vapes, means to clean and refill juice vials from larger quantities. Learn how to disassemble and rebuild coils. DIY tutorials and resources are widely available, from local shop experts to YouTube tutorial videos and series.

Recycling is the most widespread practice of the three. It’s a municipal utility, in a lot of places, even. To recycle complex electronics, like vapes and disposable e-cigs, requires special certification and licensing. Battery and electronics retailers sometimes carry the required credentials to accept a vape pen for recycling. Use resources like Earth911’s recycling location finder, searchable by item and zip code, to safely get rid of used vape mods (the battery). Some online retailers offer special discounts or gifted items for returning old vape pens by mail.

Hopefully, in the long-term, science will develop better sustainability practices for the toxic, mechanical, complex objects in our lives. Until then, though, it is up to each individual user to exercise best practices and do proper research to reduce our ecological impact. We do only have the one planet, after all.

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