This article is not intended to encourage or promote the use of tobacco products. The consumption of tobacco is harmful for your health and can cause lung cancer.
In late 2021, the Therapeutic Goods Administration announced it would make it illegal to import nicotine e-cigarettes into the country without a prescription. Whispers circulated amongst the feral/quirky set in cafes, bars and parks across each capital city: “They’re banning vapes soon”, “time’s running out”, “better stock up”.
For those of us who were, by then, hopelessly deep in the throes of dependency on these little pods of nicotine, the news brought with it a complex concoction of feelings: part relief, part concern.
But the consternation was in vain. Doomsday came and went, and since that fateful ban was passed in October 2021, vapes are easier to get than ever. They aren’t just more accessible – sold everywhere at all hours – there are far more options. Much like our universe, the vape market is expanding.
Every time I go into my local spot, there seems to be five new flavours and at least three new designs. Among my circle, the vape du jour went from 500-puff minis, to 1,800-puff mids, to 3,000-puff chunky pastel logs that resembled Bic highlighters. Prices have gone up 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 navigate a day without a vape in hand. It’s a disgusting habit, and long-term studies on vaping’s effects are yet to be assessed. But for myself and many others, vaping just represents the next challenge in what feels like a lifelong quest to quit nicotine. I was a heavy smoker for almost a decade. I don’t want to go back.
The Vape Graveyard of Shame
Any vape user worth their salt has one. A drawer, a dish, a bag, a box. In the case of one friend, a vase filled with used vapes. Sometimes there’s a few puffs left inside, reserved in case of emergency. But there they lie, piled on top of one another, inert, belly-up, like dead electronic fish. It’s depressing.
We know they can’t go in the bin. But what can we do with them?
Enter: The Mechatronics Wizard
A few months ago a post circulated on Instagram that was shared widely by Melbourne’s northside infographic crowd. Some lovely guy, self-identifying as a “mechatronics wizard” in his Instagram bio, was offering to collect people’s used vapes. He wanted to harvest the batteries from them and save them from landfill. The post blew up. The people wanted solutions.
Plagued by ever-increasing guilt over my own stash, I decided to track him down. I wanted to fix things. I wanted to do good.
Alex Fairclough is a mechatronics – electronics-plus-mechanics – engineer who teaches at Newcastle University. This poor guy had hundreds of people across the country blowing up his DMs, begging him to help free them from their burden.
“It blew up way bigger than I thought it would,” Alex told VICE. “Because I was just expecting maybe a few people locally, but then it started hitting Sydney and Melbourne and Queensland. I was like, ‘I can't take all these’.”
“You're actually not allowed to ship more than one in the mail at a time. Australia Post has some pretty hectic regulations on, specifically, the lithium batteries that are in them, because they pose an explosive risk.”
Warning: Battery removal can be dangerous. Always wear appropriate safety equipment 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 bin. No… We let them build up in drawers, bags and cupboards in the vain hope that one day we’ll be bored or inspired enough to be fucked making something out of them. “Yes girl,” I had told myself, placing another dead vape in the stash. “You’re totally gonna make some kind of incredible art project with all those empties.”
Disassembling the vape is actually pretty straightforward. Alex walked me through it.
“Step one is you want to essentially remove the bit that does the actual vape. So that's the heater cartridge and the little air activated switch bit.”
Using pliers, you need to pop off 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 little electrical wires on it is the battery end, and the side with plain plastic is the top of the juice pod. Be very careful of the battery. Gently push on the juice pod end and pop the vape’s insides out. Now it’s time to get mechatronical.
The next step is to free the juice pod from the battery.
“The best and cleanest way to do that is going to be if you've got a pair of wire cutters, something that'll cut that wire nice and neat,” Alex said.
I used sharp kitchen scissors.
Alex warned me to be very careful. If the battery is punctured, it’ll start a chemical fire.
“Disassembling these things is really at your own risk, right?” he said. “If you were to puncture one with a screwdriver, if you're trying to open it up and you accidentally slip, it really will catch fire in a big way. Very quickly, very explosively.”
“If you can, use plastic tools, take it slow, don't do it somewhere where it's gonna be running a risk of damaging stuff if it does catch fire.”
If there is clear tape on the battery obscuring the wires, you can gently pull it off. This makes cutting the wires easier, but don’t remove the blue tape that covers the battery.
There are three wires, two on one end of the battery and one on the other. Cut the wires as close to the battery as possible. On the end with two wires, do not let the clipped ends touch. If they do, they might spark, and pose a fire risk. The best way to avoid this is to cut the wires carefully, one at a time. Once that’s done, wrap the battery in sticky tape to prevent the wires from touching in transport. You can take them to Aldi or Officeworks to recycle.
But why do all this?
At the moment, there is no recycling resource for whole vapes. If lithium batteries end up in landfill, or the ocean, the results are disastrous. And it’s just a waste.
“Every one of the batteries that are in a vape like this holds about one third of the battery that's in your phone,” Alex told VICE.
“By taking the small sized batteries and recycling them, it’s super efficient. Then they get reused and made into much larger batteries, either for phones or laptops or electric cars.”
“The fact that we've got hundreds of millions of these things just getting put into a $20 vape that gets thrown in the bin, it's tragic.”
The Final Product
So what’s next? You can actually recharge the batteries themselves, if you’re into that kind of techy thing. You need proper equipment, and what looks like a lot of patience. There’s a YouTube tutorial for this, if you’re interested to see how it’s done.
The plastic parts will all need to go in the bin, including the – quite disgusting to contemplate – soggy juice pod. Alex recommends putting all the little pieces together in a ziplock bag or takeout container when you throw them out, which helps circumvent the likelihood of them ending up in the ocean or 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 vape plague is rife – she responded, “Idgaf!!!!”
“I stash them like Gollum.”
As for the shiny aluminium 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 superglued together into a unique piece of nonfunctional furniture. The opportunities are endless, really.
Or, you could just not vape. Lol.
Read more from VICE Australia.