December 10, 2023

Campaigners are calling for a national strategy to force vape manufacturers, importers and retailers to take responsibility for the industry’s waste, given the threats it poses to the environment and human 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 someone lives in Australia.

The lithium-ion batteries embedded in vaping products have been blamed for an increasing number of hazardous fires at landfill sites across the nation.

Last month an incorrectly disposed vaping device caused a fire in a recycling truck in Benalla, in north-east Victoria.

Shannon Cooper, resource recovery coordinator for Benalla Rural city council, told Guardian Australia that batteries from a vaping device had been incorrectly put into the recycling.

“What happened is that the scraping of the batteries on the metal inside that hopper has caused the fire to spark,” Cooper said. The driver, also a member of the local fire service, drove the truck to the Benalla fire station to have the fire put out.

“It was quick thinking and the fact that it hadn’t gone any further into the truck that saved it from doing any serious damage,” Cooper said.

“No battery-operated e-waste should ever go into your landfill bin or the recycling bin,” the Benalla mayor, Bernie Hearn, said. “When people dispose of their vapes, they should take the batteries out and dispose of the batteries properly.”

Pip Kiernan, the head of Clean Up Australia, said consumers should not be left to navigate the complexities of how local councils classify the waste.

“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.”

Kiernan wants a mandatory solution that forces responsibility on to 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.”

A report by the NSW environmental watchdog last year said vape sales had climbed from $28.3m in 2015 to $98.1m in 2020.

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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,” said Gayle Sloan, chief executive of the 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.”

The environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, said the federal government was trying to drive down vaping rates with stronger laws. Last month, the government pledged to introduce new legislation to ban non-therapeutic and disposable single use vapes domestically.

“We will continue working with state, territory and local governments on better managing waste,” Plibersek said.

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

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

E-cigarettes can also contain carcinogens and toxic heavy metals that pose an issue if they leach from landfill into soil and waterways.

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 and chromium, and known carcinogens such as formaldehyde.

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