How to dispose of your not-so-disposable vapes

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This article is not intended to encourage or promote the use of tobacco products. Tobacco consumption is harmful to health and can cause lung cancer.

In late 2021, the Therapeutic Goods Administration announced that it would make it illegal to import nicotine e-cigarettes into the country without a prescription. Whispers circulated in the cafes, bars and parks of each capital: “They will soon ban vapes”, “Time is running out”, “Better to stock up”.

For those of us who were, at the time, hopelessly steeped in the throes of addiction to those little nicotine pods, the news brought with it a complex concoction of feelings: part relief, part worry.

But the consternation was in vain. Doomsday has come and gone, and since that fateful ban was passed in October 2021, vapes are easier to get than ever. They’re not only more accessible – sold everywhere at all times – there are a lot more options. Just like our universe, the vape market is booming.

Every time I go to my local spot there seem to be five new flavors and at least three new designs. Around me, the vape du jour went from minis at 500 puffs, to mediums at 1800 puffs, to big pastel 3000 puff logs that looked like Bic highlighters. Prices have increased since the ban, from around $25 to $40 for a decent vape in the inner city suburbs.

Not once since the ban have I had to sail a day without vaping by hand. It’s a disgusting habit, and long-term studies on the effects of vaping have yet to be evaluated. But for me and many others, vaping is just the next challenge in what feels like a lifelong quest to quit smoking. I was a heavy smoker for almost a decade. I don’t want to go back.

The cemetery of the vape of shame

Any vaper worth their salt has one. A drawer, a dish, a bag, a box. In the case of a friend, a vase full of used vapes. There are sometimes a few puffs left inside, reserved for emergencies. But there they are, piled on top of each other, inert, bellies in the air, like dead electronic fish. It’s depressing.

We know they can’t go in the trash. But what can we do with them?

Enter: the mechatronics assistant

A few months ago, a message circulated on Instagram and was widely shared by “north side infographic crowd”. A lovely guy, who identified himself as a “mechatronics wizard” in his Instagram bio, offered to collect people’s used vapes. He wanted to harvest the batteries and save them from the dump. The post exploded. People wanted solutions.

With ever-increasing guilt about my own reserve, I decided to find him. I wanted to fix things. I wanted to do good.

Alex Fairclough is a mechatronics – more mechanical electronics – engineer who teaches at Newcastle University. This poor guy had hundreds of people across the country blasting his DMs, begging him to help free them from their burden.

“He exploded way more than I thought he would,” Alex told VICE. “Because I was expecting maybe a few people locally but then it started to hit Sydney, Melbourne and Queensland. I was like, ‘I can’t take all of this’.

“In fact, you’re not allowed to mail more than one at a time. Australia Post has pretty choppy regulations on, in particular, the lithium batteries they contain, as they pose an explosive hazard.

The how

Warning: Removing the battery can be dangerous. Always wear proper safety gear and be careful. If in doubt, consult a professional.

Alex explained that the most important part of the vape is the battery. Good people don’t put lithium batteries in the trash. No… We let them pile up in drawers, bags and cupboards in the vain hope that one day we’ll get bored or get inspired enough to fuck off doing something with them. “Yes girl,” I thought to myself as I placed another dead vape in the stash. “You’re totally going to do some kind of amazing art project with all those voids.”

Disassembling the vape is actually quite simple. Alex explained to me.

“The first step is to basically remove the bit that does the actual vaping. So that’s the cartridge heater and the little air-activated switch.

Using pliers, you need to remove both ends of the vape. You can use a screwdriver to loosen it. If it’s very tight, you can use your teeth, although I don’t recommend it.

The side with small electrical wires is the battery end, and the plain plastic side is the top of the juice pod. Pay close attention to the battery. Gently push the end of the juice pod and pull out the inside of the vape. Now is the time to move on to mechatronics.

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The next step is to release the juice pod from the battery.

“The best and cleanest way to do that will be to have a pair of wire cutters, something that will cut that wire nice and clean,” Alex said.

I used sharp kitchen scissors.

Alex warned me to be very careful. If the battery is punctured, it will start a chemical fire.

“Dismantling these things is really at your own risk, isn’t it?” he said. “If you were to puncture one with a screwdriver, if you try to open it and accidentally slip, it’s really going to catch fire in a big way. Very quickly, very explosively.

“If you can, use plastic tools, slow down, don’t do it in a place where it might damage things if it catches fire.”

If there is clear tape on the battery hiding the wires, you can gently peel it off. This makes it easier to cut the wires, but don’t remove the blue tape that covers the battery.

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There are three wires, two at one end of the battery and one at the other. Cut the wires as close to the battery as possible. On the two-ply end, do not let the cut ends touch. If they do, they could produce sparks and pose a fire hazard. The best way to avoid this is to carefully cut the wires, one at a time. Once done, wrap the battery in tape to prevent the wires from touching during transport. You can take them to Aldi or Officeworks to recycle.

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But why do all this?

Currently, there are no recycle resources for whole vapes. If lithium batteries end up in the landfill or in the ocean, the results are disastrous. And it’s just a mess.

“Each battery in a vape like this contains about a third of your phone’s battery,” Alex told VICE.

“By taking the small size batteries and recycling them, it’s super efficient. Then they are reused and turned into much larger batteries, whether for phones, laptops or electric cars.

“The fact that we have hundreds of millions of these things just put in a $20 vape that’s thrown in the trash is tragic.”

The end product

So what’s the next step? You can actually recharge the batteries themselves, if you’re into that technical sort of thing. You need the right equipment, and what sounds like a lot of patience. There is a

YouTube tutorial for this, if you’re interested in seeing how it’s done.

But for the majority of us, the plastic parts will all have to go in the trash, including the soggy juice pod – pretty gross to contemplate. Alex recommends collecting all small pieces in a ziplock bag or take-out container when you dispose of them, which helps prevent them from ending up in the ocean or in a bird’s mouth.

You can share this exciting news with your loved ones. After proudly divulging my knowledge to a friend in New York – another city where the vaping plague is rampant – she replied, “Idgaf!!!!”

“I hide them like Gollum.”

As for the shiny aluminum tubes, they can go in the recycling bin. They can also provide multiple uses, if you’re feeling creative. Notable suggestions include: as a handy boba tea straw, the perfect stem for your homemade bong, or stacked together in a single non-functional piece of furniture. The opportunities are endless, really.

Or, you can simply not vape. MDR.

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