5 million single-use vapes are being thrown away every week, a four-fold increase in the past year, the latest research from Material Focus shows.
Material Focus says this is equivalent to eight disposable vapes being thrown away per second – almost four times the number since the research was first conducted last year. The potential yearly cost of collecting and recycling these vapes according to Material Focus’ research is £200 million.
The research shows that 7.7 million single-use vapes are being bought per week – double compared to 2022. 33% of the 16-18-year-olds that vape throw their vapes away in the bin at school or work and 40% said they would use recycling bins in schools/their place of work if they were available.
The research, conducted by YouGov with calculations from Material Focus, surveyed UK adults and, for the first time, 16-17-year-olds to identify how many single-use vapes are being bought in the UK, their methods of disposal, and the preferred recycling solutions for vapes.
76% of vapers say they would be more likely to recycle if vapes were marketed as “recyclable”. While 54% of vapers said they would be more likely to recycle single-use vapes if there were recycling points in store.
Single-use vapes are a strong contender for being the most environmentally wasteful, damaging and dangerous consumer product ever made.
Commenting on the latest research, Scott Butler, Executive Director of Material Focus, said: “Since we last published our research the problem with single-use vapes has gotten further out of control.
“Single-use vapes are a strong contender for being the most environmentally wasteful, damaging and dangerous consumer product ever made.
“Until single-use vape producers, importers and retailers act to genuinely comply with and finance their legal environmental responsibilities then the calls for banning the sale of them will only strengthen.”
The research shows over 30 million single-use vapes are bought per month by UK adults 16+ (double compared to Material Focus research conducted of adults 18+ in 2022) but only 17% of people who buy vapes say they recycle the product in a shop or local recycling centre.
73% of UK vapers say they throw away single-use vapes and 3% of UK vapers say they drop single-use vapes on the ground – which rises to 8% for 16-18 year olds.
The main reason that 16-18 tend to throw away or drop their vapes is because they don’t want the people they live with to know they vape – 31% compared to 8% of the population.
Last year, Material Focus conducted research that identified that 700 fires are caused by batteries hidden inside electricals such as vapes in the waste stream.
The research follows calls for a complete ban on single-use vapes, including from the North London Waste Authority, Local Government Association, and the British Metal Recycling Association. This week (4 September), First Minister Humza Yousaf said the Scottish government will consult on banning single-use vapes.
The fire service has also warned the public about the dangers of disposing of lithium batteries in household waste bins after two separate bin lorries caught fire within an hour of each other.
Defra’s comments on disposable vapes
Material Focus says the yearly cost of collecting and recycling single-use vapes isn’t being paid for by vape producers, importers and retailers.
However, earlier this month (September), Waste and Resources Minister Rebecca Pow said the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations require producers to take “financial responsibility” for collecting and treating single-use vapes when they become waste at household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) or are returned to retailers.
Pow also committed Defra (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to consulting on reviewing the existing WEEE regulations in 2023 to ensure the treatment costs of vapes falls on manufacturers or importers.
Defra has recently commissioned research on the market for, the environmental impacts of and associated cost impacts of disposable vapes, Pow said, which will be published “in due course”.
She also claimed that there is currently “no cost to the public purse” for recycling disposable vapes that are deposited at household waste recycling centres (HWRCs).
Our Environmental Improvement Plan sets out our plan to review rules for waste electricals this year.
In a statement given to Circular Online, a government spokesperson said: “The government is very concerned about the environmental impacts of disposable vapes and will shortly publish a response to its call for evidence on vaping which closed in June.
“All electrical waste should be properly disposed of and recycled to protect our environment – this includes disposable vape pens.
“Our Environmental Improvement Plan sets out our plan to review rules for waste electricals this year. As part of this, we will consider what changes in legislation are needed to ensure the vaping sector foots the bill for the collection and treatment of their used products.”
Is there a solution?
Material Focus has called for “immediate, significant and transparent” voluntary vape industry action to implement a widely accessible take-back and recycling scheme for disposable vapes, alongside a communications campaign to raise public awareness, “in advance of planned regulatory changes already earmarked by Defra”.
The not-for-profit organisation also said all supermarkets, high street convenience stores, petrol stations, and specialist vape stores should be taking back old single-use vapes when customers buy new ones.
We need rapid growth in the number of accessible and visible vape recycling drop-off points.
Butler commented: “Very few producers and retailers comply with environmental regulations and haven’t put recycling drop-off points and systems in place. This all means that too often local authorities are being burdened with the major operational and financial headaches associated with what is now the fastest-growing and most dangerous waste stream in the UK, single-use vapes.
“Vapes, like any other electrical with a plug, battery or cable, should never be binned and always be recycled as a minimum. We need rapid growth in the number of accessible and visible vape recycling drop-off points. And we need proper financing of genuine recycling solutions to recover materials and manage fire risks.”