RIVER UP IN SMOKE
Above, Eyes of San Marcos Outreach Coordinator David Zambrano poses with a jug of vapes collected from Old Bastrop and Scull Road. Photo by Jessica James. Below, vapes and speakers collected during a clean up over Fourth of July weekend. Photo provided by Clay Wyatt.
Rise in vapes found in river drawing concerns from local conservationists
Tubing season often comes with an increase in trash collected during the summer, but an uptick in vape cartridges found in the San Marcos River is calling attention to the environmental effects of electronic cigarettes on the Edwards Aquifer.
Vapes, also known as e-cigarettes, are battery powered smoking devices that allow users to inhale small amounts of nicotine through a liquid known as e-juice. The plastic units are commonly advertised as disposable and are often discarded after the e-juice runs out.
In May, the FDA issued warning letters to makers of various e-cigarette companies, including Shenzhen Innokin Technology Co. Ltd., who make Esco Bars products and Breeze Smoke, two popular brands used by vapers. The letter placed the companies on notice about their unauthorized FDA approval, which allows federal regulators to refuse or detain the product from being distributed in the U.S.
Many proponents cite vaping as a healthier alternative compared to tobacco smoking, but experts claim the materials found inside vape cartridges, specifically lithium batteries, are difficult to recycle and can be highly combustible if not properly handled.
Hays Hazardous Waste (HHW), located at 660 E. Hopkins St., is a city-managed service funded through the residential garbage fee of $30 a month. The center accepts a variety of hazardous products, including paint, cleaners, oil and batteries. They are also the only facility in San Marcos that recycles vape cartridges.
“I would say we have definitely seen quite a few [vapes] since I've been here in the last year and a half,” said Resource Recovery Coordinator at HHW Taraja Oliver. “We can recycle the batteries, and that's pretty much the only part of the vape that we can recycle. Everything else we would send to Green Guy since it would be considered just a used electronic. From there, they can recycle some of the cards inside.”
Vape waste or tech waste is a term used to describe the plastic, toxic and e-waste caused by vaping. Discarded cartridges can leak lithium, lead and cobalt into the environment, a primary concern for local conservationists who are pulling more vapes out of the river as the trend grows.
According to the 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey, over 55% of e-cigarette users most commonly use a disposable e-cigarette product.
“Vapes are kind of the new kid on the block,” said David Zambrano, outreach coordinator for the Eyes of the San Marcos River. “There is lithium that is slowly seeping out, as well as all the other precious metals. They weren't extracted from it... it’s just one of those things where people should be a little more mindful about what they're doing with the things they bring to the river.”
Zambrano said his group primarily paddles from Old Bastrop to Scull Road, which is a 4-mile stretch commonly floated by tubers. On average, his team removes 20 to 40 17-pound bags of trash per week just from that area alone. He said that number does not include other kayakers who clean on their own.
“We call this the home stretch because this is so frequently used,' he said. “I've been doing this for about 12 years now. We never used to find these, and this is now one more thing that we're just cognizant about. The other stuff isn't less, there is just more of those.”
Community Enhancement Initiatives Manager Amy Thomaides oversees the Garbage and Recycling Resource Recovery Division for the city. She works with HHW staffers to implement a style of sustainability she calls landfill diversion and resource recovery. The objective is one of the goals outlined in the Municipal Solid Waste Comprehensive Plan launched by the city in 2012.
“We are looking at ways of increasing landfill diversion within our community,” Thomaides said. “We help residents divert materials from going into the landfill. Our contract with Green Guy is part of our labor for household hazardous waste drop. It’s from the Habitat Conservation Plan and its goal is to keep chemicals out of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.”
The impact of vaping has also drawn concerns over the flammable nature of the devices if left in warm temperatures or trash cans, but HHW disposal service helps to mitigate the chances of units catching fire or ending up in the river.
“Well, the batteries that are contained within these vapes can be pretty volatile,” Oliver said. “They can easily catch fire if they spark in regular trash cans or are left in your car in the Texas heat. I believe our facility is a way to reduce the amount of random sparks and fires that can result from batteries just being thrown into the trash at our parks. It also provides a way to keep vapes out of the river in general, by providing a space where people can properly dispose of them or they can be recycled.”
Visit the HHW website for more information on other materials accepted at the facility.