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'Disposable' vapes and the damage they cause

A blog post by Laura Young

We have been working with ASH Scotland and the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) to tackle cigarette litter across Scotland. However, we are all hearing that on top of cigarette butts we are finding a new litter item – single-use vapes.

As part of International E-waste day (October 14) guest blogger Laura Young, also known as Less Waste Laura, a climate activist and environmental scientist with a passion for the circular economy and litter picking, details the strain disposable vapes have on the environment and explains the issues surrounding their increasing popularity.

You might have noticed that there has been a boom in the market of “disposable” vapes. These often brightly coloured single use gadgets show a concerning step backwards in regard to Scotland moving forward to a circular economy.

A significant upsurge in the use of disposable e-cigarettes started in 2021, and between January 2021 and January 2022, there was a 14-fold increase in use of disposable e-cigarettes among vapers, rising from 1.2% to 16.7%, being particularly significant among younger adults.

This rapid increase is concerning the health charity, ASH Scotland, as these products are not harmless and are age-restricted for good reason. Nicotine is highly addictive and many vapes include toxic chemicals that have not been safety tested for inhalation and could damage health over time. From an environmental perspective, it is even more alarming when you pair that with the evidence that as “disposable” vape sales have increased, there has been a drop in use of rechargeable e-cigarettes.

Vaping devices have been around for a few years now, however particularly in the last couple of years we’ve seen a real spike in the popularity of “disposable” models, with more than one million sold every week in the UK and two thrown away every second. Instead of recharging, and refilling your vape with the nicotine laced liquid, these “disposable” vapes come ready to go and last for around 600 puffs before needing to be thrown away and replaced. It’s important we know exactly what is inside these vapes before moving forward, so here is a great photo showing a deconstructed device with a metal (or commonly plastic) outer casing, lithium battery, heating coil, mixed plastic contraptions, and a nicotine liquid-soaked sponge

The contents of a deconstructed vape. Photo courtesy of Mark Miodownik (Twitter @markmiodownik)

However, what are the unintended consequences when it comes to “disposable” vaping?

Well first of all, selling products which are “disposable” can contribute to these items being littered in cities and in natural spaces. These devices have become the new kid on the block when it comes to litter, particularly in busy built-up urban areas. If you’ve never seen a “disposable” vape before, the photo below was taken by keen litter pickers across Scotland and shows what they look like.

The contents of these put a real strain on the environment, adding to plastic pollution, risk to wildlife, and contamination as the contents are a mixture of hazardous vaping liquid and a lithium battery. When littered these can often end up near watercourses, down drains, or be smashed open by traffic.

Then on top of this, these items are sold as “disposable” and if put into landfill or incineration, these precious materials will never be recovered. A huge issue when we know our planet is running out of finite resources like lithium. A recent estimate found that with the vapes used in the UK alone 10 tonnes of lithium are wasted each year, the equivalent of producing batteries for over 1,200 electric cars. Even more pressing when we know the sales for these products has been growing exponentially in recent months.

Other problems arise when you think about how these items should be disposed of appropriately. Often, brands do not specify how to dispose of these devices, and do not classify them, leading to the majority of people throwing them into general waste. This poses a huge problem, not just in material recovery, but in the risk 'zombie batteries' prove in the waste disposal process. If batteries are not recycled, they can cause fires in bin lorries or waste facilities if damaged or cut open in machinery. It is vital we recycle these devices properly.

The best option would of course be for vapers to use reusable devices which can be recharged and refilled. However, it is best to spread the correct information about how these should be thrown away. These devices, with a battery and therefore power, are classed as electronic items, which require WEEE recycling. WEEE recycling stands for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment and isn't commonly available curbside, so must be done at a specific site; commonly a recycling centre or via one of the big tech companies which offer this service in store. Frustratingly, most models of 'disposable' vapes are sold in one complete structure which isn't modular, meaning the battery cannot be simply removed to be recycled at the common points you might find in supermarkets.

What it is vital people do not do, is throw them into the environment as litter, or throw them into regular bins which go to landfill or incineration plants. If you have to use a vaping product please use a reusable option and when you need to dispose of a vaping product make sure it goes to an appropriate e-waste recycling point. We must try to recover and recycle these precious materials, protect our planet, and move towards a circular economy!

Today is International E-Waste day - take action and share this blog to raise awareness of this growing issue to stop single use vapes polluting our streets and seas!

We are working with ASH Scotland and Marine Conservation Society to monitor this new litter type and will consider calling for a ban on single use vapes.

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