Anyone who’s participated in a beach cleanup is familiar with the classic cup of cigarette butts. The collection of nasty, soggy, chemically remains of cigarettes is the top item—often numbering in the thousands per cleanup—found in the sand in many parts of the U.S. along with other bits of plastic pollution.
But habits are changing, and so too is the waste that goes with them. While people participating in beach cleanups across the U.S. this summer still found butts, they also noticed that pods from Juuls and other vapes are becoming a new menace. Patrick Diamond, vice chair of Surfrider NYC, told Earther in an email that while he hasn’t kept specific statistics, vape paraphernalia is “now joining cigarette butts and other items as beach trash and plastic pollution which means they will make their way into the ocean as more plastic pollution.”
Public health has become a primary concern with vaping this year. The CDC has confirmed 33 deaths in 24 states from illnesses related to vaping while another 1,500 lung injuries have been reported. Many of the victims reported using THC, though some reported only vaping nicotine. But there are growing signs that vape pods and pens could become a huge environmental issue as well, creating a whole new stream of plastic and electronic waste just as public perception—if not actual practice—seems to be turning against plastic.
“It’s not like you’re doing less damage to the world by vaping vs. smoking,” Yogi Hale Hendlin, an environmental philosopher at University of California, San Francisco who’s been studying the issue extensively, told Earther. “I think a lot of vapers are under that misconception.”
Juul pods have quickly become the new cigarette butts and not just on the beach. They can be found joining blowing plastic bags and loose candy wrappers in the feral trash of urban landscapes. They’re small, cheap, and easily left behind on tables, bus seats, or the sidewalk. There’s even an unfortunate meme encouraging users to throw their full devices out the window or into the ocean in response to the health concerns, underscoring how disposable the devices seem.
Juul—which cigarette kingpin Altria bought a 35 percent stake in last year—dominates the vape product market, with 16.2 million devices sold in 2017 alone. That makes up 70 percent of the overall market. The company reported selling 175 million refill pod kits in the first quarter of this year alone, a huge increase from 64 million sold the same period the previous year. Each refill contains two to four pods, so that’s easily over a billion and as many as two billion little squares of plastic going into the trash each year. Lined up, those discarded pods would easily stretch from New York to Los Angeles.
Users can hardly be blamed because most vaping companies don’t offer any alternative. The devices are e-waste, and the pods are made of hard plastic that can’t be recycled or reused. It’s part of what environmentalists say is a larger problem at the intersection of capitalism and tech: Companies can introduce products into the market with no concern of how to close the loop on disposing of them. At best, this foists the cost of disposal, clean up, and recycling onto the user—or the non-vaping taxpayer.
The environmental footprint of vaping is tied to both the pods and e-cigarettes themselves. The plastic pods will basically never biodegrade. But they and other vape products are also complicated pieces of e-waste, though users often confuse them for something disposable.
Consider the pod: You vape a whole cartridge and want to dispose of it. The Juul packaging contains no info on how to do this, so you consider throwing it in the plastic recycling. Except pods can’t be recycled with household plastic because the nicotine is toxic, which means the pods are essentially hazardous waste.
Juul vaguely directs users to take the pods to an e-waste facility, but those facilities actually don’t know what to do with them either. Earther called e-waste facilities in Brooklyn, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and New Orleans but none said they accepted the pods (New Orleans does have a recycling option for Mardis Gras beads, however). Most said they only accept things with circuit boards, which Juul pods do not have; several said they were not even familiar with the pods and had to check on if they took them in the first place.
On top of that, we already are drowning in so much plastic as to make recycling functionally impossible. An informal survey of a handful of Juul users I conducted confirmed that most trash them. Even a vape shop owner gave me the same advice.
If you Google “recycle Juul pods,” you will likely find a site called Autopods, a would-be recycling service that New Yorker Mohamed Allam started early this year after noticing “an insane amount of empty pods” littering the city streets. Allam told Earther he tried to set up a mail-in recycling program where users get 5 cents per pod. But, as you may imagine, millennials hate mail, so participation has been low.
On top of that, Allam hasn’t actually been able to figure out what to do with the pods. The pods are unsanitary and the coils erode over time, he said, so they were no good for refilling and reuse. Autopods ended up using the empty pods for art, putting them together like Lego pieces.
“A little bit of glue, creativity and patience and you have a recycled piece of art,” Allam said.
It’s hardly a long-term solution, but it beats throwing them in the ocean.
The devices themselves are potentially more hazardous. Juuls along with a growing number of vape pens are designed to be sleek and discreet. That can also make them almost seem disposable, so people don’t consider them e-waste. Some just toss them in the trash (one user told me he specifically threw his device in a public trashcan so he wouldn’t be tempted to pull it out and start using it again). Yet vape pens are anything but regular trash.
“E-cigs, in terms of their composition, are much more like our smartphones than they are like a traditional cigarette,” Hendlin said. “They have complex computer circuitry, they have hard plastics, they have all these heavy metals in them and lithium ion batteries that are about the same size as our smartphones.”
Juul’s website tells users to check their city’s recommendations for dealing with a lithium-polymer rechargeable battery as does Vuse, another popular brand. A Juul spokesman told Earther the company is piloting a takeback and recycling program at some of its office locations “to ensure we develop effective, innovative and sustainable solutions.” In addition, he said the company is working with “a number of organizations and potential partners to advance our environmental sustainability efforts” but would not provide more details on either initiative.
Giving consumers such open-ended instructions just doesn’t work, said Judith Enck, a regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration who now works on tackling plastic pollution at Bennington College.
“Most communities do not have easy to access electronic waste return programs. I’m extremely concerned about the millions of tiny lithium ion batteries that are littered or sent to incinerators or landfills,” she told Earther. “The rules on electronic waste are very confusing in a lot of communities. I seriously doubt most consumers are holding onto these devices and collecting them and bringing them [to a facility].”
These compounding environmental woes may seem like something vaping companies should have thought of before they launched, but the vapor is already out of the cartridge on that. That puts the burden on regulatory agencies to decide what to do with mounting vape-related waste.
Enck said state governments should adopt laws that put a mandatory deposit on the devices (say, $5) so people would be more likely to dispose of them properly. It would be similar to bottle-deposit laws that encourage recycling.
“You should be able to return them to wherever you bought the product,” she said. “Then the Juul company needs to invest in their reuse and recycling program.”
Hendlin agreed and said a $1 deposit on pods could even lead to a de facto cleanup program as people pick through the trash and gutters—though relying on homeless and low-income people to provide municipal waste management is its own kind of dystopian scenario. The truth is that without any economic incentive or government mandate, people will just keep throwing them in the trash because it’s easier.
“You have to have some sort of external oversight,” Hendlin said, citing the history of single-use plastics and wasteful shipping packaging, the disposal of which companies have foisted on consumers. “We’ve learned our lesson in history from that one.”
Of course, you could always just quit.