The Environmental Issues Posed by Vapes and The Lack of Recycling Compliance

While a vape recycling scheme has been set in the UK earlier this year, there have been problems with compliance.

While vaping products offer a great opportunity as smoking cessation tools, technology has yet to catch up in making them environmentally friendly. Recycling the products poses significant challenges due to their complex composition and hazardous materials. Vapes often contain a mix of plastics, metals, electronics, and lithium-ion batteries, all of which require different recycling processes.

The batteries, in particular, are problematic as they can cause fires and are classified as hazardous waste if not properly handled. Moreover, the e-liquid residues in vapes complicate the recycling process further, as standard recycling facilities are not equipped to manage them safely, leading to environmental contamination and concerns about health risks for workers.

Sadly, the design of disposable vapes adds an extra layer to these issues. Unlike reusable models, disposable vapes are meant to be discarded after a single use, resulting in increased waste. And naturally, their popularity among youth has led to a surge in discarded units, and increased environmental pollution​.

Addressing these problems requires the development of specialized recycling programs and facilities capable of safely disassembling and processing the various components of vaping products. Public awareness campaigns and manufacturer take-back schemes could also play a role in mitigating the environmental impact​.

The UK’s recycling scheme.. where is it failing?
In the UK, as of early 2024, vape retailers are required to offer a recycling facility for vapes on a one-for-one basis, meaning that a retailer must accept a used vape for recycling when a customer is purchasing a new one. To this effect, shops must provide an in-store designated bin or container where customers can drop off their used vapes.

However, highlighted Director General of the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA), John Dunne, sadly there is an issue of non-compliance among vape retailers and manufacturers. He emphasized the importance of these entities taking their environmental responsibilities seriously, particularly those who are UKVIA members. Dunne acknowledged that recent figures on non-compliance are alarming and called for more action from both retailers and the government, including effective policing of compliance.

Recognising the environmental challenges posed by single-use vapes, the UKVIA has been working closely with the Office of Product Safety and Standards to ensure appropriate controls are in place. The association has also led initiatives to encourage responsible behaviour among vape manufacturers, retailers, and consumers to reduce environmental waste. Furthermore earlier this year, the group organized an event bringing together the vaping and waste industries to collaborate on meeting the challenge of recycling vapes.

Dunne suggested that the government could ensure compliance by introducing a licensing scheme for vape retailers, which would require them to have a take-back facility. He argued that such a scheme would not only address environmental concerns but also help ensure that retailers sell legal vapes only to adults.

Authorities need to up their game at enforcing recycling
Additionally, Dunne urged local authorities to contribute to recycling efforts. In fact, a Freedom of Information (FOI) investigation by UKVIA revealed that 80% of surveyed councils have no plans to introduce new vape recycling services within the next year, and a third currently do not offer any drop-off points for used vapes. Material Focus has called for the introduction of vape waste collection points in public spaces such as parks, an area where local authorities could significantly impact.

The UKVIA is underscoring the need for a collective effort by all stakeholders: retailers, the government, regulators, local authorities, as well as consumers, to improve environmental compliance and sustainability within the vaping industry.