Tobacco waste is one of the world’s most significant sources of plastic pollution. Every year, trillions of cigarette butts are discarded, polluting the earth’s soil and seas with toxic chemicals and harmful man-made plastics. This, however, is quickly being matched by another source of waste: e-cigarettes.
Vaping, which is marketed as a less unhealthy alternative to tobacco smoking, poses a massive threat to the environment.
What exactly is the issue with e-cigarettes?
E-cigarettes have grown in popularity in recent years. They are commonly used by people who want to quit smoking, but many young people are now getting into vaping directly. In 2022, 2.55 million U.S. middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, including 3.3% (380,000) of middle school students and 14.1% (2.14 million) of high school students. E-cigarettes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are refillable with single-use plastic cartridges, while others are completely disposable. This generates a lot of waste.
According to Material Focus research, approximately 1.3 million single-use e-cigarettes are discarded in the UK each week, which equates to two every second. By the time you finish reading this article, 100 will have been disposed of. “With the tobacco industry largely controlling the vape market, it is reasonable to wonder whether vaping is more environmentally friendly than smoking, or whether the tobacco industry has gotten worse,” researchers Jérémie Pourchez, Clément Mercier, and Valérie Forest wrote in a scientific paper on the subject. “Our planet is now facing a new threat: vape waste,” they added.
E-cigarettes are not recycled.
One major source of the problem is that single-use vapes are rarely recycled, with only 30% being reused. They use precious metals in their lithium batteries, which are coated in brightly colored plastic. Disposable e-cigarettes are the most popular type of vape, particularly among teenagers. They contain 0.15g of lithium on average, and over 1.3 million are discarded each week. This equates to 10 tonnes of lithium per year, which is equivalent to the lithium in 1,200 electric vehicle batteries.
But the issues do not end there. Vapes emit toxic chemicals into the environment as their batteries and circuit boards degrade, and their casing degrades into harmful microplastics. Even when properly disposed of, the components pose a fire risk when recycled, causing yet another headache.
Do people understand the environmental impact of vaping?
Most people don’t think about what happens to their e-cigarette after they throw it away. Almost half of young people don’t know what to do with used devices when they’re no longer useful. According to Truth Initiative, a smoking and vaping awareness organization, more than half of them are thrown away. There are also problems with the products. Manufacturers often don’t offer clear guidance on how to dispose of them or they advertise vapes as disposable, rather than encouraging recycling.
“Throwing away vapes means that we are throwing away some of the most precious materials on our planet.” He puts the responsibility on those making and selling e-cigarettes, saying they needed to do more to tackle the crisis. “Producers and retailers need to work together to ensure that they should make people aware that vapes should never be binned and instead be recycled,” Butler added.
“Recycling needs to be made easier and manufacturers and retailers can become part of the solution by adding collection points in-store.” Others believe the state needs to step in to promote safe recycling and minimize waste through regulation. “Fortunately, vape waste is a preventable environmental disaster, but for this disaster to be averted, disposable e-cigarettes must be better regulated,” write scientists Jérémie Pourchez, Clément Mercier and Valérie Forest.