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Blog June 2023

The Rise of Disposable Vapes: Healthier Alternative or Environmental Hazard?

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Courtney Garahee

Digital Marketing Specialist

Single use vapes have seen a dramatic increase in popularity in recent years, due to their accessibility and diverse flavours. Brands such as Elf Bar, LostMary, and Geek Bar are readily available in corner shops, supermarkets, and even in vape vending machines located in nightclubs and bars.

In many cases, consumers opt for vapes because they are marketed as a healthier alternative to cigarettes. Unlike cigarette smoke, however, which bears decades-long research into its negative impact, the effects of inhaling e-liquids are still largely unknown.

Yet these aren’t the only concerns around vaping. Single-use e-cigarettes are also sparking debate on a range of environmental issues such as increased street litter. Add to this the misuse of critical resource, lithium, and it’s potential to cause fires at waste and recycling plants, and its clear society needs to take a closer look at the ‘benefits’ of vaping.

What are vapes and why are they a problem?

Designed for convenient, handheld use, disposable vapes are single-use devices, often available in a variety of appealing colours, shapes, and flavours. To provide a nicotine hit without at least some of the harmful effects of burning tobacco, vapes work by heating a nicotine e-liquid to create a mist that can be inhaled.

That means inside each single-use plastic device is a chamber filled with a nicotine infused e-liquid, a heating coil, and most detrimental from an environmental perspective, a lithium battery.

Growing popularity of these disposable vapes has led to a corresponding global increase in e-cigarette waste. In Ireland alone, for example, €85 million was spent by local authorities last year on street cleaning, with cigarette butts and vapes accounting for half of all litter.

It’s a worrying trend as, like all electronic and electrical equipment (EEE), disposable vapes should be discarded appropriately due to the nature of the technology inside.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, each device contains around 0.15 grams of lithium, a metal classified as a critical raw material by the EU and US. Looking at UK statistics, the annual sale of 138 million single-use vapes equates to enough lithium for around 1,200 electric vehicle batteries. Yet most of this lithium is currently dumped or incinerated, necessitating the extraction of still more virgin lithium.

With Friends of the Earth reporting just how harmful lithium mining is to our planet, damaging the soil, air, and water of vulnerable developing countries, it’s worth taking a moment to assess the scale of this damage.

Are e-cigarettes regulated?

In the current environmental climate, it’s fair to expect the promotion of anything disposable should be questioned and regulated.

In fact, regulations already restrict the advertising of e-cigarettes on public transport, in cinemas, and near schools. In recent months, there has also been a push to regulate the sale of disposable vapes to minors. Cabinet approved legislation in Ireland, for example, means those found selling vapes to under 18s will be fined up to €4,000 and perpetrators could face up to six months in prison.

It’s a vital measure against underage vaping and one that demonstrates restrictions can be imposed, but unfortunately, it does little to combat e-cigarette waste.

Vape retailers are also pushing back at environmental concerns with one online vaping guide commenting that “just one cigarette butt can contaminate up to 1,000 litres of water” so “By switching to vaping, you’re already making a positive environmental difference.”

And while there’s no doubt contamination caused by cigarette butts is a problem, it seems self-evident that the environmental impact of disposable vapes cannot by any means be justified.

Producer responsibility – design for re-use or recycle

With mounting environmental concerns around disposable vapes, perhaps the time is overdue for an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) model that visits the true environmental costs on both producers and consumers?

In an ideal world, this environmental levy would oblige producers to manufacture a more environmentally responsible device that could be re-used, or failing that, recycled. This would involve charging consumers a deposit or refundable charge in order to promote recycling.

In addition to these measures, it’s important to think about how retailers and manufacturers can provide accessible recycling facilities and clear instructions for disposal. In this way, regulations to promote responsible disposal and minimize negative environmental effects could make a noticeable difference.

The dangers of incorrect battery waste disposal

In addition to reducing vape litter, an EPR scheme would also reduce the risks that lithium batteries present to waste and recycling centres when disposed of incorrectly.

In fact, binned batteries pose severe safety hazards for waste and recycling centres with potential dangers including fires, explosions, and toxic fumes. According to the Environmental Services Association, lithium-ion batteries are responsible for around 48% of all waste fires in the UK each year, costing some £158 million per year to waste operators, fire services and the environment. This makes it crucial to dispose of e-cigarettes as electronic waste in order to minimize their environmental impact and prevent safety risks.

Technology provides some hope here with new ways to reliably prevent such fires. Innovative additions to existing technologies such as AMCS Vision AI could be used to detect lithium batteries that have been erroneously placed in general recycling or dumped in general waste. With software to automatically identify e-cigarettes during waste processing, facilities will have vital means to separate them for appropriate treatment.

All of which is good news for waste management and recycling facilities. A recent EPA report examining mixed recycling facilities, landfills, transfer stations, trucks, and electronic recycling facilities, reveals that lithium battery fires are causing havoc across the full waste spectrum with MRFs facing the brunt of the impact.

Not only is this a real risk to staff safety, but it is also putting substantial financial pressure on municipal recycling facilities.

Worryingly, the EPA report also highlights that MRFs are now finding it increasingly difficult to get insurance, with many providers leaving the market due to high risk factors. Naturally, this also has a knock on effect for customers, who may have to pick up the financial strain.

As these findings highlight, incorrect battery waste disposal carries steep costs and stark safety risks, in addition to harming the environment since lithium batteries also contain toxic chemicals such as lead, cobalt, and other substances that can leach into the soil and water and harm wildlife.

Together, these risks mean any measures to encourage the recycling of e-cigarettes and appropriate disposal of associated batteries will have a positive impact on the environment and pave the way for a more circular economy.

How can disposable vapes be safely recycled?

Around 1.3 million vapes are discarded each week in the UK. That’s the estimate revealed by research from Material Focus. Extrapolate these figures globally and the environmental impact of e-cigarette waste is a serious cause for concern.

Yet legislation already exists to support the safe disposal of electronic waste. Companies producing less than five tonnes a year of electrical or electronic equipment must register as a small producer; those producing more than five tonnes annually are required to join a producer compliance scheme. Worryingly, however, many smaller vape companies are not registered to meet the legal rules for recycling.

So, leaving producer responsibilities aside, what should consumers do with their e-cigarette waste?

Whether they are single-use, disposable, or even rechargeable, all vapes can be recycled without charge wherever you see a WEEE Ireland blue battery box. WEEE Ireland facilitates the collection and proper recycling for all types of e-waste, ensuring the recovery of valuable resources that can be repurposed to achieve a truly circular economy.

In other regions, it is essential that consumers follow the guidelines provided by their local recycling centre or government agency in order to dispose of batteries properly. Many recycling centres, for example, offer battery recycling services, and some even provide collection bins for easy disposal.

Counting the true cost of vapes

Although single use vapes are presented as a pathway to drop a smoking habit, and this is no doubt a laudable aim, it would be remiss to overlook the full environmental cost of e-cigarettes. From lithium mining in South America, to widespread waste on our streets, and an increased risk of fire at waste and recycling centres across the globe, the costs are high.

Regulation is urgently required as a result, to reduce consumption, but also to ensure the costs described above fall more fairly on both producers and consumers alike. As always in the quest towards circular living, prevention and reduction will always be more effective than recycling and in the case of vapes, it would surely produce a healthier outcome for all.

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