Vape wasteland: Looking beyond public health

Resource looks at the impact of vapes and e-cigarettes on the environment and the challenges facing the industry in terms of legislation, behaviour change and vape recycling schemes. 

Single-use vapesAccording to Material Focus, two vapes are disposed of in the UK every second. The number of people vaping worldwide is predicted to have reached a record high having risen from seven million in 2011 to 55 million in 2021.

While the Government is actively using vapes – even giving out vaping kits – as part of their target to make the UK smoke-free by 2030, vapes are proving to be even more damaging to the environment, due to fires from embedded lithium batteries as well as the leaching of corrosive electrolytes and heavy metals. Indeed, research published by Material Focus in December 2022 identified that over 700 fires in UK waste trucks and on waste sites were caused by batteries that hadn’t been disposed of correctly.

There are currently calls for bans on single-use vapes and for vapes to be made into a separate waste category, with their own solution within the WEEE Regulations.

What risks do vapes pose to the environment?

Arguably the main problem with vapes is that there is no established system for their collection and disposal. Millions of single-use disposable vapes containing valuable resources like lithium end up in landfills across the world. It’s estimated that approximately 1,200 electric vehicle batteries could be made from the lithium lost in discarded vapes and e-cigarettes in one year. 

Scott Butler, executive director of Material Focus, told a joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigate Journalism, Sky News and the Daily Telegraph in July last year that vapes that go to landfill are responsible for dumping plastics, poisons, nicotine salts, heavy metals, lead, mercury, and flammable lithium-ion batteries into the environment.

He continued: “The challenge is that people don’t really think about what a vape is made of, but what it does for them.”

Other impacts include littering, the aerosol transmission or leaking of toxic substances from e-liquids, the leaching of heavy metals and the leaking of corrosive electrolytes from batteries.

Legislating vapes

Due to the public and environmental health risks, local authorities and governments around the world are considering legislation options for controlling the sale and disposal of vapes.

Glasgow Council’s Environment and Liveable Neighbourhoods Committee called for the Scottish government to introduce legislation to ban the sale of single-use vapes earlier this year. Australia also announced a ban on the sale of all non-prescription vapes earlier this year.

In the UK, a Disposable Electronic Cigarettes (Prohibition of Sale) cross party bill was put forward by Conservative MP Caroline Johnson in February, but is not scheduled for a second hearing until 24 November. The UK parliament website says, however, that “the House is currently not expected to sit on this day and the bill is therefore not expected to be taken.”

In this year’s budget, UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt also rejected proposals to tax disposable vapes to discourage underage vaping; the Government is instead considering a ban on candy-flavored vaping liquids alongside a clampdown on marketing that could appeal to the young, with a consultation into youth vaping launched in April this year.

The Government’s reticence to introduce legislation around vaping has been put down to the opportunity that vapes present in moving the population away from traditional cigarettes. Mark Oates, director of the campaign group We Vape, told eCigIntelligence that while he didn’t think the industry was doing enough to address environmental issues, “it would be a great shame if [the government] removed this opportunity to take people away from cigarettes”.

The solution, commentators suggest, is to focus on recycling schemes and the introduction of policy around recycling and waste collection. In the case of no blanket ban, stakeholders are calling for extended producer responsibility (EPR) for vape and e-cigarette producers, with some producers having already proactively created or signed up for recycling schemes.

Recycling and collection schemes for vapes

There are examples of several recycling and collection schemes for vapes currently set up around the world. Private waste disposal companies GAIACA and TerraCycle offer services which dismantle, clean, and convert vaping devices into raw materials for use in new products in both New Zealand and Canada. In the US the vape industry has launched recycling schemes such as DotMod, Shanlaan, Dovpo and Vinn.

In the UK, vaping company FEELM has launched a UK-wide recycling scheme in partnership with Royal Mail and waste management firm Waste Experts. From the end of this month, Customers in London, Birmingham and Manchester will be able to return their used single-use vapes to a participating retailer or through the post. The waste items will then be recycled while the remaining e-liquid will be safely disposed of. To incentivise uptake, for every ten devices deposited FEELM will provide customers with a free vape.

Vape retailer Totally Wicked has also signed up for a national vape collection service launched by Veolia last month and VPZ stores have announced its own recycling partnership with WasteCare.

While recycling schemes are a step in the right direction, a huge hurdle still to overcome is customer messaging. Many people lack an understanding of the effect of vapes on the environment.

Consumer communications on vape disposal

Despite being better for human health than traditional cigarettes, iIn the absence of proper management and legislation, single-use vapes and e-cigarettes are more hazardous than single-use plastics because of the chemicals they contain, yet many vape users are unaware of the dangers.

As Material Focus’ Scott Butler made clear, vapes and e-cigarettes tend to be looked at in terms of public health. The industry has, however, been slow to launch campaigns which look to expand consumer awareness of the environmental issues associated with vapes and e-cigarettes.

Gateshead Council in Tyne and Wear has been ahead of the curve, launching a campaign to teach residents about the correct disposal of vapes and ‘dangers posed’ by incorrectly disposal in household waste or recycling bins.

Councillor Linda Green, Chair of the South Tyne and Wear Waste Management Partnership, told Circular Online in February: “I really dislike the term ‘disposable’, as they are anything but.

“All vapes contain a battery, and if you throw them in your bin and they are collected by our crews, these batteries can be damaged during processing and spark, setting fire to any combustible materials around them.”

The question for the industry is whether a blanket ban can be avoided by sufficiently curtailing the environmental damage of vapes through consumer communications and proper recycling – while still reaching the Government’s target of a ‘smoke-free’ UK. 

Related Articles