Vape Recycling Partnership in Johnson County

vaping products on the pavement

In late 2019 Johnson County Department of Health and Environment embarked on a partnership with Household Hazardous to address the ever-growing problem of vape disposal and recycling.

According to Truth Initiative “With about one in 4-5 high school students using e-cigarettes in 2020, vaping generates a significant amount of toxic and plastic waste. There has been a 399.73% increase in retail e-cigarette sales (excluding internet sales and tobacco-specialty stores) from 2015 through 2020, the environmental consequences of e-cigarette waste are enormous.”

The Shawnee Mission School District expressed an interest in participating in a pilot recycling program and became our first community partner. After meeting and determining the logistics of collection and transportation, the recycling program began.

Shawnee Mission middle and high schools collect confiscated vape devices and products and were then provided with fire-proof bags to deposit the vape products. Periodically, all schools were instructed to bring bags to a regularly scheduled administrative meeting where they were turned in to the Health Services Coordinator for the Shawnee Mission School District. The coordinator would then contact the JOCODHE partner who would pick up all the vape and transport to HHW. HHW partner and JOCODHE partner would then separate the vape components into the parts that could be recycled from those that had to be destroyed. These parts are the nicotine, plastic, and batteries.

When the program started, we started looking at how all hazardous waste is managed across the state and the nation by law. The EPA is very specific on this process, and it is what we in the industry dub ‘Cradle to Grave’ or hazardous waste flow from generation to end. At the beginning the waste is determined to be an actual hazardous waste. Nicotine is designated by the EPA and RCRA as a P075 acutely hazardous waste. It is also of note that nicotine was developed as a commercial pesticide due to it toxicity. Also, in these vape pens, as was mentioned are lithium batteries. These are designated as a Class 9 Environmentally Hazardous Material by the EPA and should be managed appropriately. This is primarily due to the water-reactive nature of lithium.

After all the waste is collected at the point of generation (which is the school) including batteries, pens, and cartridges we send this waste back to our HHW facility with a general bill of lading for tracking purposes. Once the vapes arrive at our HHW facility the lithium batteries are separated out from the nicotine. The batteries are then consolidated, packaged, and sent to a local battery recycling facility. The nicotine is combined with other wastes here at the HHW facility (primarily pesticides), packaged, manifested, and shipped off-site as a toxic hazardous waste through a DOT permitted transporter. The nicotine is ultimately incinerated in an EPA permitted facility. The HHW is meticulous about ensuring the compliance of the proper handling, recycling, and disposing of these vapes in an environmentally conscious manner.

When COVID rates rose and schools became virtual, the program was put on hiatus. We have now returned to the program and hope to expand to other schools in Johnson County with the goal of providing an environmentally appropriate method of recycling vape products. With our initial efforts, we have collected hundreds of confiscated vape devices and products and safely recycled them.

Throughout the country, there are few states implementing vape recycling procedures and we are proud that Johnson County is leading the effort to address this serious environmental issue.