Is Vaping Sustainable?

A recent conference for industry representatives and consumer advocates debated the importance of a sustainable approach to the future of tobacco harm reduction and the industry. Meanwhile, an expert has set up a working party of experts to identify opportunities for manufacturers to reduce their products’ environmental impact. Some companies are making good strides forward, but is the pace of change fast enough and should people be doing more?

Last year, the House of Commons Library published a briefing looking at the “Environmental impact of disposable vapes”. The debate pack covers several key issues related to single use vape products:

Firstly, it points out that “vapes are classed as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). This means that consumers should dispose of them at a household recycling centre or at the shop where they bought the device.”

It also stated that most vapers who use disposable vapes are unaware that their devices need to be treated differently to normal rubbish and should be recycled. Not doing so, the authors point out, can lead to a few problems.

What is in a disposable vape?
Typically, the outer casing is made of different plastics.

The wick and tank will contain the nicotine e-liquid, and some of this will remain in the device after it has stopped being used.

Lastly, the battery and components contain lithium, copper, lead and other heavy metals.

What is the problem with throwing them away?
Depending on the manufacturer or product, some or all of the plastics in the device might not be recyclable. Untreated, the plastics can be broken down into tiny pieces called microplastics that can harm living organisms.

Nicotine is a toxin and is used as a pesticide, it is reasonable to assume that this poses a risk to the environment in large quantities. A study by Material Focus states that half a billion disposables are purchased and 50% of them are simple thrown away with normal refuse.

Also, the heavy metals are highly toxic, and the lithium from the batteries is an expensive and rare resource that is in high demand. The University College London’s Professor Mark Miodownik is a materials specialist. He said: “We can’t be throwing these materials away. It really is madness in a climate emergency – lithium is one of the things that is going to fuel the green economy.”

A hot topic
Issues related to disposable vapes have cast them in a bad light. Some are constructs without any base, but fires in refuse trucks, landfills and at treatment plants are real and, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), is costing taxpayers money.

The LGA’s environment spokesperson, Councillor Linda Taylor recently called for an urgent “crackdown” to prevent the costs caused to council waste teams from spiralling out of control.

What can be done about recycling?
Under the WEEE regulations, retailers selling over £100,000 of electrical goods should offer a take-back and processing service while those who don’t meet that threshold should collect spent vapes and then pay the local council to have them processed.

But it isn’t clear cut how this relates to disposable vapes and one of the industry associations has called for clarity.

The UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) told the BBC in 2022: “You have to dig deep into the regulations to find any mention of e-cigarettes which could be down to the fact that when they were introduced at the beginning of 2014, disposable vapes were very much in their infancy.”

The Government said that they planned on updating and clarifying the regulations to vape companies, but this is still to be enacted. This delay was noted in the House of Commons Library briefing: “The Government has recently said that it will set out plans for reform of the existing WEEE regulations ‘in due course’.”

To push this matter forward, the Association released its “Greenprint for Sustainable Vaping” in April. The Greenprint’s main push is the creation of a “national recycling and waste treatment capability fit for the vaping industry”.

Following a related conference, UKVIA Director General John Dunne said more education is needed for consumers and the industry.

“It is important for regulators, the industry and those dealing with the recycling and environmental aspects of this issue, to all come together to seek a common solution because this problem is not going to go away without action,” he added.

Adam Afriyie MP, Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Vaping said: “Vaping has already saved so many lives in the UK that is has become part of the healthcare industry and now it must come together to find a sustainable solution for disposing of these vape products and prevent the naysayers from undermining an industry that has probably saved more lives than any other modern innovation in the history of our country.”

Conference debates
At the recent Global Forum on Nicotine conference, another side of the argument was put forward. Acknowledging that there is an environmental impact from vaping, this sector reduces the environmental harm caused by the tobacco industry and discarded cigarettes.

This, attendees agreed, doesn’t mean the industry should be complacent.

How is the industry responding?
Vaping developed in leaps and bounds to accommodate user needs – and it is shifting now when it comes to disposables.

Some manufacturers are committing to using recycled products in the construction of devices. Some are offering freepost return policies. Shops are putting recycling drop boxes in store – but it is the actual device design where things get interesting.

A new product that is set to be rolled out utilises a recyclable plastic mouthpiece, a cardboard body that can be turned back into fresh cardboard, and an easy to remove and recycle battery that gives it a claimed 95%+ recycle potential. Moving forward, we can look forward to seeing many such innovative devices building sustainability into the product.

What can I do in the meantime?
Always remember that your spent single use devices can be taken to large supermarket stores. Plus, some electrical stores offer a similar drop-off service. Finally, local recycling centres will accept all your old disposables.