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Juul vapes will contribute to a dangerous e-waste crisis

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Your Juul may not kill you, but it’s definitely not doing the planet any favors.

Like many other delightfully small gadgets, the world’s hottest vape is miserable to dispose of without wasting parts or putting people in harm’s way. Juul devices pack a lot into a small package, including a lithium-ion battery, which could explode if mishandled. 

Though Juul Labs, the company behind the vaporizer, is on track to dominate a multi-billion dollar e-cig market this year, it’s made no clear effort to educate its customers about how to dispose of the Juul safely, nor has it established a trade-in program that would allow people to responsibly send their gadgets back when they’re no longer desired. 

Juul Labs has positioned itself as responsible company, with a product that could make the world a better place. Yes, it sells delicious nicotine pods that teenagers crave, but it also has a mission statement: “We envision a world where fewer people use cigarettes, and where people who smoke cigarettes have the tools to reduce or eliminate their consumption entirely, should they so desire.” Without clear guidance on how to dispose of its devices, Juul Labs may only make the world worse, as wasteful electronic gadgets pile up and resources to create new ones dry up.

Juul’s devices are tiny and tricky to pull apart, like so many other gadgets. (Apple’s teensy AirPods have been called “impossible” to recycle.) And so the onus is on Juul Labs to reclaim them, especially as the devices become more popular. It’s made no effort to do so.

A lot of people are buying these. Even last fall, when Juul’s market share hovered around 32 percent, the company told CNBC it produced 20 million products every month. (That includes the device’s “pods,” which contain the nicotine-filled liquid the unit vaporizes for your inhaling pleasure.) Now, Juul reportedly accounts for 54 percent of the e-cig market.

The volume of production is reason for concern, according to Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a nonprofit concerned with protecting people and the environment from e-waste. Small problems add up. Eventually, people will need to dispose of their Juuls, and they currently have few good ways to do so responsibly. No battery lasts forever, and the company doesn’t officially sell lithium-ion replacements or repair parts. 

“Lithium-ion batteries will lose their capacity at some point,” Puckett said. “And when it dies, people will likely throw it in the trash, absent an aggressive program to prevent that.” 

Juul has no such program. The company’s website doesn’t include any clear information about recycling, though it notes that its pods should not be refilled or reused. 

Reached by Mashable, Victoria Davis, a spokesperson for the company, said: 

We design our device to be reliable and strive to exceed our 1-year Limited Warranty period — this is not a disposable item like many other e-cigarettes. For disposal purposes, JUUL should be treated as any other consumer electronic device, such as a cell phone. We suggest following your city’s local recommendations for disposing of a lithium-polymer rechargeable battery.

Following “local recommendations” may be easier said than done. Many states have no specific battery recycling requirements. The same goes for cities.

Worse, not every recycling program behaves responsibly. As the Basel Action Network found in a 2016 investigation, U.S. recyclers will sometimes export e-waste to other countries.

It’s a simple cost-benefit game: Recycling is a business, but it’s not always one that pays off. Some devices contain few valuable parts. Others are labor-intensive to break apart. Slim smartphones, for example, are often shredded into pieces, from which some valuable metals are gathered and smelted. The process is as destructive and wasteful as it sounds.

You can see the Juul’s component parts on the company’s “Juul Labs” website. (Or could, anyway: Perhaps coincidentally, juullabs.com began to redirect to juul.com after Mashable reached out with questions about the page on Tuesday evening.) 

A cached version of juullabs.com, depicting the Juul's component parts.

A cached version of juullabs.com, depicting the Juul’s component parts.

There’s quite a lot packed into a small and sleek package, which is probably why the company and its vapes have been compared to Apple and the iPhone. But there isn’t a lot of value in the Juul’s components — the device retails for $34.99 — so recycling companies won’t get a lot out of breaking them apart and reclaiming the parts.

“Recyclers are not going to be too keen to take them because a) they are filthy, and b) they are not going to be worth much in commodity value,” Puckett explained.

Kyle Wiens, the head of iFixit, echoed these concerns when approached about the Juul’s lifespan.

“They need to be manually disassembled and separated,” Wiens said. “I don’t see a major problem with the design from that perspective, except that they’re so small and lightweight that the economics wouldn’t work out great.” 

In other words, a small device with few valuable parts leaves little upside for recycling programs. No one is going to break a Juul apart to recover its parts.

And again: If these gadgets aren’t handled properly, their batteries could combust. Take a look at this video published by the nonprofit Ecomaine, reportedly showing the result of a lithium-ion battery fire at a recycling facility in Maine:

But this isn’t all about explosions, either. Electronic devices like the Juul — or iPhone, for that matter — rely to some extent on elements that are not in limitless supply on this planet. For example, lithium-ion batteries require cobalt, which is sourced from very few places, often at great human cost.  

In this regard, Juul Labs may have less of a cross to bear than, say, Apple or Samsung. The battery in a Juul vaporizer is certainly smaller than the one in your smartphone, and it doesn’t have a tantalum-packed processor nor speakers or a hard drive. You can also imagine that there are fewer potential vape-huffers in the world than there are potential smartphone users. (Though, for what it’s worth, 1.1 billion people still smoke worldwide — a pretty hefty demographic!)

But that’s all beside the point. Tech companies like Juul Labs, which nail some key innovation and then go on to rule industries where once there was stiff competition, should bear a proportionate responsibility to limit the harm they inflict on the planet. This is why Apple crows about its renewable energy innovations and iPhone-dismantling robots, though it still has quite a ways to go before it can be taken seriously as a “green” company.

Juuls are a big business. While the original device still sells like hotcakes, you can imagine the company — following perhaps every successful consumer tech firm to ever exist — is planning ways to eke more cash out of is existing customers. Juul Pods, as a literally addictive substance, are no doubt great for revenue. The inevitable Juul 2 or Juul XL will be, too.

And so, just as it’s committed $30 million to research and education about underage use, the company could set a meaningful agenda about e-waste. It’s a problem that will persist for Juul Labs and its contemporaries. But it could be mitigated by consumer education and a trade-in program similar to Apple’s “GiveBack” initiative, which gives people credit in exchange for their old devices.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

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