Photo of hidden stash in Aussie's kitchen cupboard exposes 'scary' problem

Everyone knows someone who vapes, but how many of us know what to do with them once they're empty?

A Melbourne resident's collection of discarded vapes.
Around 1.7 million adults now vape in Australia, but how many know how to properly dispose of them? Source: Reddit

Almost everyone knows someone who uses a vape. Among young people, they're extremely popular and many studies have linked the rise of nicotine consumption in our youth to the devices.

It's been estimated there are now almost two million Australians who vape, but according to one of the nation's leading tobacco experts, Dr Colin Mendelsohn, hardly anybody knows how to dispose of them. It means they're ending up in landfill — or worse, on fire — due to a dangerous mix of their lithium-ion batteries and toxic chemicals.

This week, a Melbourne-based vaper took to social media to query just that. They said they "needed to get rid of my old vapes", [and] didn't want to blow up their local garbage truck.

"So I've been vaping for a while and have no idea where to dispose of them," the Victorian admitted. "I'm scared the garbage truck will explode and I'll be put in jail if I chuck them in the bin — anyone know who can take these off my hands?"

Mendelsohn said the question is far from uncommon but the answer is quite simple.

An on fire garbage truck and a garbage man holding vapes, issuing a warning.
A recent spate of battery fires inside garbage trucks recently prompted a Sydney council to issue a stern warning to locals. Source: Waverley Council

Mendelsohn said the Melbourne resident's query reflects a general lack of education about vaping in the country, which could easily be remedied in an "awareness campaign". Rubbishing claims that vapes have to be dismantled and disposed of in separate parts, he said most people can actually bring them into their local supermarkets for recycling.

"People can just go to Woolworths or Coles and they have battery recycling disposal boxes there," he suggested. "There are battery recycling programs under government stewardship, there are at various recycling boxes, but the problem is people just aren't going to do it.

"People are buying vapes from black market operators — there's no way they're going to participate in any recycling program. But if you have a legally operating market with mandatory recycling as part of it, and you give people incentives, such as discounts on the next ones they buy, you can really, properly educate people."

Criticising the government's new anti-vaping laws that came into effect in July, Mendelsohn said Australia would greatly benefit from an awareness campaign on vaping and in particular, how to dispose of them.

A garbage truck on fire in Bondi over a battery-powered device being throw in the regular garbage.
Bondi residents got a shock in February when they spotted this battery-induced blaze in the middle of the road. Source: Facebook/Caragh Lyons

The problem, according to Mendelsohn, comes down to education. "The government's doing nothing," he said. "They talk about recycling and have policies and official views about how to dispose of televisions and computers. But there's very little public information around correct disposal of these products."

Mendelsohn argued that while vapes are undoubtedly harmful to a person's health, the effects of the alternative, cigarettes, are overwhelmingly worse. He said the environmental impact of vaping products is far lower than from cigarettes, however vapes are a genuine cause of litter and fire risk and can result in soil and water pollution from leaking chemicals.

"It's not brain surgery, all you need to do is dispose of them in battery recycling bins, not in domestic bins or on the street. But because these products have been bought on the black market, there's no established procedure or process for recycling," he said.

"They're adding to landfill, which is always a problem, but the main concern is fire.

"When these bins get picked up by the trucks and they're compacted, often there are fires in the back of the trucks and waste disposal facilities. This is any lithium-ion battery, by the way, not just vapes of course, but often at the waste disposal centres, there are fires — and they can go for years.

"The leaching of the toxic chemicals is also concern. Some of the chemicals are going to leak into the the environmental water system, and there will be some toxicity from that, though less than for cigarette butts, which are much more toxic."

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