Environmental Scientist at Wardell Armstrong, Katie Heath, explores what the solution could be to disposable e-cigarette waste.
Around 7.1% of the UK’s population uses e-cigarettes purchasing a staggering half a billion units per year, three million of which are thrown away each week. E-cigarettes (commonly called ‘vapes’) usually consist of a lithium-ion battery, a tank, and a coil to vaporise the e-liquid, and once disposed are classified as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) under UK law.
Currently, disposable (single-use) vapes make up at least half of the e-cigarette market. The description ‘disposable’ may suggest the devices are as convenient to discard as they are to buy, however, all small WEEE devices must be sent for separate recycling, which is often best achieved through a trip to the local recycling centre.
Unfortunately, this message has not kept up with the rising popularity of vaping, so these devices are discarded with household waste fated for landfill or incineration. This issue extends to small WEEE generally, accounting for much of the 8% of electrical waste that ends up in household waste bins.
This is an issue that needs to be taken much more seriously, especially as WEEE waste streams are increasing at a rate three times that of average municipal waste growth. If the government hopes to achieve its target to double resource productivity and eliminate avoidable waste in England by 2050, then it is irresponsible to allow a throw-away culture to be ingrained into the general population using ‘disposable’ small electrical devices.
Small WEEE devices (including those containing batteries) comprise a mixture of materials, some of which are hazardous.
These devices often contain rare and expensive resources, such as precious metals, which can be recovered if treated properly. Mismanagement of these valuable materials risks the escape of pollutants such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, into the environment, as well as allowing valuable resources to be lost to landfill and incineration.
The UK economy is estimated to lose £370m per year from the incorrect disposal of materials containing valuable resources, such as gold, copper, aluminium, and steel.
The disposal of vapes (and other devices containing batteries) in household waste also pose a serious fire risk in waste disposal vehicles and on waste sites. It is estimated that 48% of waste fires in the UK are caused by incorrectly disposed lithium-ion batteries, resulting in around 600 fires in waste trucks and on sites per year.
Although batteries should be removed and disposed of separately, many devices, including disposable vapes, have batteries sealed within the unit making them difficult to segregate.
On average, each European household is hoarding an estimated 5kg of waste small electronic devices, which amounts to a significant quantity of valuable resources effectively stagnating outside of the circular economy. The recent rise in popularity of e-cigarettes presents a significant opportunity to explore methods of improving small WEEE recycling rates. To do this, not only must producers ensure devices are easy to recycle, but consumers must also have convenient access to the right recycling channels.
A potential way to achieve this is by providing consistent kerbside collections of small WEEE and batteries, reinforced with a strong campaign to increase public awareness.
Some councils have already seen success offering these kerbside collections, but there has been a recent call for more councils to implement this service, with research indicating collections could save up to 64% of WEEE from being thrown away equating to some 99,000 tonnes.
In the future, it may be possible to further incentivise the recovery of valuable small WEEE by integrating it into Deposit Return Schemes such as those proposed for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and already operated in Scotland.
The schemes currently proposed are limited in scope to materials commonly recycled at the kerbside currently (plastic, steel and aluminium cans, and glass bottles), but now is the right time to explore more ambitious avenues, given the significant resource and environmental benefits that could be gained from a small WEEE collection.
As our consumption of electronic devices increases, so too will the need for good outlets for WEEE recycling, especially as demand increases for the finite resources used in their production. If we are serious about moving towards circularity, we must do more to empower the public to recycle their electronic appliances.