Strolling down any street in the UK, it’s hard to miss the sight of colorful plastic tubes scattered on the ground. These are disposable vapes, an increasingly popular alternative to smoking. However, while the decline in tobacco smoking is a positive development, the detrimental environmental consequences of disposable vapes remain widely overlooked. In this blog, we delve into the environmental impact of these single-use devices, exploring their recyclability, carbon footprint, and the ongoing debate about their potential ban.
What is the environmental impact?
With a staggering 1.3 million disposable vapes discarded in the UK each week, the scale of their impact becomes apparent. Research by Material Focus, a recycling campaign group, reveals that the yearly volume of disposable vapes ending up in landfills could fill 22 football pitches. This amounts to approximately 1.4 million square feet of land, equivalent to the space required for 14,000 kilowatts’ worth of solar panels, capable of powering 4,000 homes annually.
Why Disposable Vapes Are Detrimental to the Environment
Disposable vapes contain valuable materials, such as lithium batteries and copper, both of which are finite resources essential for various electronic devices worldwide. The global shortage of lithium, used extensively in rechargeable technologies like electric vehicle batteries, exacerbates the urgency for transitioning to greener alternatives. Disposing of disposable vapes leads to an annual loss of around 10 tonnes of lithium, which could potentially power approximately 1,200 electric vehicles, resulting in a CO2 reduction of 2,200 tonnes per year. Furthermore, damaged lithium batteries in disposal plants can cause fires, emitting substantial pollution into the atmosphere. Leakage from discarded vapes also poses risks, as metals, battery acid, and nicotine can contaminate water sources and harm natural habitats.
Production and Global Transportation
The majority of disposable vapes are manufactured in China due to lower labor costs and streamlined production processes. China alone accounts for around 80% of the global production, with the remaining 20% produced in countries like the UK and the US. The transportation of billions of vapes from China worldwide via planes and freight ships contributes further to environmental damage.
Recycling and Carbon Footprint
Disposable vapes can be recycled as they fall under the category of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). However, despite this recyclability, approximately 50% of vapers still dispose of them in regular waste bins. Insufficient awareness and inadequate labeling by manufacturers contribute to this issue. Encouragingly, some companies, like Elfbar, are recognizing the environmental implications and considering recycling initiatives, yet addressing the use of essential materials like lithium and copper remains paramount.
Recycling Locations and Carbon Emissions
Recycling centers and shops that recycle batteries are legally obliged to accept disposable vapes as part of the WEEE classification, regardless of where they were purchased. Removing the battery before recycling is recommended, but if not possible, the entire unit can still be recycled. The production of disposable vapes emits approximately 59,650 tonnes of CO2 annually in the UK alone, equivalent to the emissions of roughly 375,795 individuals. Globally, disposable vape production accounts for about 1.9 million tonnes of CO2, representing 0.3% of the Amazon Rainforest’s annual capacity for carbon absorption.
The Growth of Disposable Vapes and Calls for Action
The demand for disposable vapes has skyrocketed, with approximately half a billion purchased annually in the UK alone. This surge in popularity, particularly among young people, raises concerns about the long-term health effects of vaping. Consequently, calls for a ban on disposable vapes or the implementation of collection points in shops have emerged. However, the decision to ban disposable vapes is not without complexity. Vaping is often viewed as a less harmful alternative to smoking, and the industry itself has grown into a multibillion-dollar market. While some activists advocate for a complete ban, others propose alternative solutions such as collection points for used vapes in retail stores. Additionally, there are calls to restrict flavored liquids in vapes to discourage their use among young individuals, who make up a significant portion of disposable vape users.
Comparing the Environmental Impact: Disposable Vapes vs. Cigarettes
When considering environmental impact, disposable vapes fare better than traditional cigarettes. The global tobacco industry exacts a heavy toll on the environment, leading to the loss of 600 million trees, 200,000 hectares of land, and 22 billion tonnes of water annually. Furthermore, tobacco production contributes to 84 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, equivalent to the yearly emissions of 13.3 million UK residents. Cigarette filters, which do not degrade, generate around 1.8 million tonnes of waste each year, releasing microplastics that can harm marine life and infiltrate the food chain.
In conclusion, while using disposable vapes may offer health advantages over smoking tobacco, their environmental impact and the wasteful consumption of essential materials needed for green technologies raise legitimate concerns. The rapid growth of disposable vapes, coupled with insufficient recycling rates, underscores the need for improved education and awareness to promote responsible disposal practices. Whether through a ban, increased recycling efforts, or other regulatory measures, addressing the negative effects of disposable vapes is vital in our ongoing battle against environmental degradation and the challenges of our throwaway society.