An environmental nightmare or a convenient tool for smokers to quit cigarettes? Circular Online explores whether disposable vapes should be banned.
Single-use vaping products have become ubiquitous in any public space. Whether they’re being puffed on in pub gardens or littering streets and parks, it’s hard not to notice disposable vapes in their multitude of vibrant colours and diverse menu of flavours clouding public spaces.
Many vapes come in primary-coloured packaging adorned with cartoon mascots, designed to look more like a packet of sweets than a product to help smokers kick cigarettes.
So, who is the real target audience for these products?
Vice-president of policy for the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health, Dr Mike McKean, has described vaping as an “epidemic” among teenagers. Vaping is illegal for anyone under the age of 18; however, NHS figures showed that 9% of 11- to 15-year-old children used e-cigarettes in 2021, which rises to 18% for 15-year-olds.
This is a problem and isn’t what producers say vapes were designed for – to help adults quit cigarettes. Not act as a cheap, accessible alternative to smoking for teenagers.
Director General of the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) John Dunne, told Circular Online: “The huge positive benefit that vaping brings – and especially the many disposable entry-level devices on the market – is that they are a very effective way to help adult smokers on their quit journeys.”
Public Health England has found evidence that vaping is better than nicotine replacement therapy for stopping smoking. Cancer Research UK also says that current research shows e-cigarettes are “far less” harmful than smoking.
However, vaping does have health risks and there isn’t research into their long-term effects. If you’re not trying to quit smoking, vaping is probably not a good habit to pick up.
The Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported that in 2021 13.3% of people aged 18 years and over smoked cigarettes, which is the lowest percentage since records began in 2011. The ONS says that vaping devices have played a “major role” in this decrease but don’t specify whether they’re referring to reusable or single-use vapes.
However, Dunne told Circular Online it’s “no coincidence” that the decline in smoking has coincided with the rise in popularity of disposable vapes due to their ease of use and accessibility. “They have proved extremely popular amongst those on low incomes who are amongst the most prevalent smokers.”
They (disposable vapes) have proved extremely popular amongst those on low incomes who are amongst the most prevalent smokers.
So, if disposable vapes are helping people quit cigarettes, what’s all the fuss about? Well, health implications aside, these single-use products are extremely difficult to dispose of, proven causes of waste fires, and a regular source of litter. They’re probably the most controversial WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) product available on the market today.
Research commissioned by Material Focus identified that 1.3 million disposable vapes are thrown away every week in the UK – two every second. According to a report by ITV, only 30% of these disposable vapes are being recycled, which means their critical lithium batteries are being lost to landfill.
Separate research by Material Focus amongst local authorities across the UK also highlighted that over 700 fires in waste trucks and sites were caused by batteries that weren’t removed from electricals.
Medical Journal The Lancet said disposable e-cigarettes were “highly concerning” on an ecological level.
The environmental problem with disposable vapes – what’s the solution?
Disposable vapes are incredibly difficult to recycle. They’re also a fire hazard; an increasing source of litter. When we know there’s a reusable alternative, is the solution to simply ban these products?
Young, an award-winning climate activist, environmental scientist and influencer, told Circular Online: “These devices (disposable vapes) contain plastic, metal and their own battery. They use precious metals that are going to waste as the vast majority of these products are being chucked away in general waste bins.”
She explained that electronic devices used to be something we dispose of once every few years, such as a toaster or microwave; however, with single-use vapes, we’ve created an electronic device that potentially needs to be disposed of every day.
They (disposable vapes) have to be manually pulled apart, every single one of them.
Young said that even if the materials in these devices could be recovered, they would still overwhelm existing infrastructure because they’re not easy to recycle. “They have to be manually pulled apart, every single one of them. So that’s 1.3 million (disposable vapes) a week plus everything else that ends up in recycling centres. That’s going to be a huge problem.”
Young isn’t a lone voice calling for a ban. Last year, 18 environmental and health groups signed an open letter to the Environment and Health Secretaries Thérèse Coffey and Steve Barclay asking the government to ban the sale of single-use e-cigarettes.
However, vape producer ANDS says it actually has created a vape product that is “99% recyclable and recoverable” called SLIX. So, is this the first step on the path towards a solution to the disposable vape problem waste problem?
A 99% recyclable and recoverable vape
Mentioning disposable vapes to someone in the waste and resources industry is a surefire way to start a discussion – just don’t bring it up if you’re in a rush.
One of the reasons for this is the waste hierarchy ranks prevention and reuse above recycling. It’s hard for many professionals to reconcile an accessible reusable alternative to single-use vapes being available and the sight of hordes of disposable vapes being littered in the streets.
Circular Online asked ANDS how environmentally conscious consumers could justify purchasing a SLIX when they could choose a reusable vape instead.
A spokesperson for ANDS said: “For many smokers, the combined upfront cost of refillable pods plus the device is about the same as the cost of a packet of cigarettes which is double the price of a single-use product.
“In addition, refilled pods are not on sale everywhere. Single-use vapes may also particularly appeal to those on low incomes where smoking prevalence is at its highest and therefore where vapes can potentially have their greatest impact.
“In addition, investment in product development, recycling facilities and consumer education will help minimise the impact of disposables on the environment.
“Single-use vapes meet a crucial market need as they seem to be extremely popular amongst those looking for a viable alternative to their combustible cigarettes, due to ease of use, accessibility and the price point.”
ANDS says that based on recyclability testing of SLIX, the product produces 70% less waste than an equivalent number of devices from a “market-leading brand”.
However, ANDS admits that there needs to be a “lot more” investment in providing collection points not just at the point of sale but the point of use, which the spokesperson described as clubs, transport hubs and pubs, etc.
Earlier this year, Veolia launched a national vape collection service which aims to provide a safe disposal and recycling route for e-cigarettes.
“There is also a recognised need for more waste management capability to cater for the increased popularity of single-use vapes,” ANDS told Circular Online.
So, can disposable vapes be sustainable if the product is 100% recyclable and there is an easily accessible nationwide collection scheme?
Laura Young says this still wouldn’t get to the root cause of the issue because recycling goes against the “ethos” of the product because disposable vapes are specifically marketed as convenient and therefore easily dispensable. Do users know they should be recycled? Do they even care?
Young argues that to suddenly ask vapers to take the time to dispose of their product at a collection point would be ineffective.
“It wouldn’t work because that’s not how they’re being sold. They’re being sold as disposable and convenient, suppliers can’t then say, ‘Oh, but actually we get them back’. I think that’s part of the issue.”
Young compares the product to fast food. Customers who use a McDonald’s drive-through want convenient food quickly without having to worry about cleaning up their kitchen or washing up after eating.
She says disposable vapes are similar in the sense that consumers want to quickly dispose of the product once they’re done with it the way they stub out a cigarette.
We have to make vape recycling, regardless of the type of vape, as accessible and easy as possible.
When asked if their target demographic could ever be persuaded to return or recycle the SLIX product, ANDS said: “Single-use vapes are extremely popular and we have to make vape recycling, regardless of the type of vape, as accessible and easy as possible.
“There also needs to be greater education of consumers by manufacturers, retailers and the waste management sector, to encourage recycling of products.
“Investment in education and recycling facilities, together with environmentally conscious product development, will together minimise the impact of single-use vapes on the environment, whilst still providing the convenience that has made the category so popular.”
What is the vaping industry doing?
As a result of the increase in the popularity of single-use vaping products, the world is still adjusting to the environmental challenges they present. Even Director General of the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) John Dunne acknowledged that the vaping industry needs to do more to minimise its impact on the environment.
Following an industry-wide consultation, the UKVIA published its “Greenprint for Sustainable Vaping”, a 22-point environmental action plan for the sector. The plan calls on the vape industry and waste providers to collaborate and find a viable, long-term solution for disposing of and recycling vaping products.
The “Greenprint” also says the waste industry must design simple and easy-to-use vape recycling containers.
Our green action plan focuses on the development of recycling infrastructure which is fit for the vaping industry.
“Our green action plan focuses on the development of recycling infrastructure which is fit for the vaping industry, new vape innovations that make products more recyclable and reusable, as well as the support that needs to be put in place to encourage greater retailer and consumer participation in the environmentally-conscious disposal of vape products.”
“Already we are seeing new highly recyclable products emerging across the disposable category and industry-led recycling initiatives to ensure consumers are disposing of their vapes in an environmentally considerate way.
“Through such continued action, we want to ensure going forward that the industry minimises its impact on the environment, particularly when it comes to single-use disposables, so they are seen for what they do best – helping adult smokers kick their habits and saving the lives of millions as well as millions of pounds for the health service.”
Should single-use vapes be banned?
Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS), commissioned by the Scottish government, has published a review of the environmental impact of disposable vapes, which recommends nine policy options including banning the sale of single-use e-cigarettes. Could Scotland be the first UK nation to implement a ban?
The primary concerns about single-use vapes include their difficulty to recycle, the fire hazards they pose, and their improper disposal. Mitigating their environmental impact will not happen overnight and requires collaboration, consumer buy-in and improved recycling infrastructure.
Although the data suggests disposable vapes are an effective tool to help people quit smoking due to their affordability and availability, the boom in their popularity raises questions about the environmental challenges they present and whether legislation is necessary to stem this issue. What’s clear – at least for now – is this increasing waste stream isn’t going away.
This could mean reusable vaping products will become more accessible and affordable to the people who need them, helping them not only kick cigarettes but ensure they don’t replace them with a disposable, difficult-to-recycle alternative that ends up harming our environment.