We’ve heard a lot in recent months about how vaping e-cigarettes can harm people. Now some are worried about how vaping harms the environment. John Daley of Colorado Public Radio reports on schools concerned about vaping waste.
JOHN DALEY, BYLINE: Boulder High School’s assistant principal, Kristen Lewis, shows me a pile of items she keeps in her office, some of it discarded by students, some they were forced to turn over to teachers.
KRISTEN LEWIS: This is what I call the box of death. This is everything that we’ve confiscated.
DALEY: Lewis says smoking on school grounds is against the rules, whether that’s cigarettes or vaping. In a box, there are vape pens, tiny bottles of nicotine oil and a lonely box of Marlboros.
LEWIS: I mean, you probably have 100, maybe, Juul pods in here if you were to sift through.
DALEY: Juul is the leading brand of e-cigarette. The pod is a small plastic cartridge that holds the nicotine liquid. You use it once, then throw it away. The pods snap on to the smoking device, a vape pen or vaporizer, which you keep and use over and over. In 2017, people bought more than 16 million of the devices in the U.S., and that doesn’t include the disposable pods. Colorado topped the list for teen vaping last year, and the evidence is all around Boulder High. Angel Ocon played football there and says he’s seen plenty of e-cigarette pods tossed under the stadium bleachers.
ANGEL OCON: If you use a vape or Juul or something, all you’re going to think about is, like, getting the buzz, not where you’re getting throw away your stuff.
DALEY: Researchers have actually identified sleek, high-tech e-cigarettes as a growing waste problem. Shelly Fuller manages Boulder County’s hazardous materials program. She says it started about two years ago.
SHELLY FULLER: If you’re coming in to drop off paint or household chemicals or anything like that, you might also bring in your vaping devices.
DALEY: Fuller says vaping devices shouldn’t be dumped in the trash. A vaporizer, just like a cellphone, contains a circuit board. That means there are plastics and heavy metals like lead and mercury. And the disposable cartridges aren’t harmless either, especially if there’s any vaping liquid left inside. That has nicotine plus other toxic chemicals.
FULLER: We’re shipping it off with our poisons or toxics. Technically, nicotine is considered an acute hazardous waste, so that means in a small dose, it can be lethal to a human or a rat.
DALEY: Vaping devices also house batteries that Fuller ships to a recycling facility in Arizona. Environmental health researcher John Volckens says traditional cigarette butts were a big part of the waste stream for decades. The butts also contain toxins and the filters shed tiny plastic fibers. But Volckens says e-cigarettes are even more complicated.
JOHN VOLCKENS: Because as the battery degrades, the compounds in the battery can leach into water nearby. This is really a contributor to a larger e-waste problem we have as a society.
DALEY: Juul declined to comment. Gregory Conley is president of the American Vaping Association. He says it’s not a huge problem because most pods aren’t thrown away until the liquid is gone. As far as the electronic vape device, he says it’s up to consumers.
GREGORY CONLEY: There is no environmental damage compared to all of the household products that we throw out in the garbage every day.
DALEY: Back at Boulder High, assistant principal Kristen Lewis walks around outside the school.
LEWIS: Yeah, more Juul pods.
DALEY: She finds them everywhere kids hang out, along nearby Boulder Creek and in the yards of homes across the street.
LEWIS: It just talks about, you know, how much this has become a part of our students’ lives. And that’s what’s scary. Every high school in the nation is really dealing with this.
DALEY: But changes are happening. School officials are talking more about the risks of vaping. And in Boulder, voters just approved a new 40% tax on all vaping devices, including the disposable pods. For NPR News, I’m John Daley in Boulder, Colo.
INSKEEP: This story comes from NPR’s reporting partnership with Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.