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Disposable vape devices are coming under increasing scrutiny in the UK, with a ban even mentioned in parliament. Amongst the reasons behind this are the environmental impact these one-use devices are having. But how damaging are disposable vape devices and is the bad press really deserved?

What are Disposable Vape Devices?

A disposable vape device is a small, pre-filled electronic cigarette that comes in single-use, disposable form. These devices are designed to be used once and then discarded, hence the name "disposable." They are typically compact, lightweight, and easy to use, making them a popular choice for those who are looking for a convenient and hassle-free way to vape.

Disposable vapes come in a variety of flavours and nicotine strengths, allowing users to choose one that suits their preferences. Unlike traditional e-cigarettes or refillable vape devices, there is no need to charge, refill or replace coils with disposable vapes. Users can simply use them until they run out of battery or e-liquid and then dispose of them.

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Disposable vapes are popular among those who are looking for an alternative to smoking or traditional vaping. They offer a simple and affordable way to try out different flavours and nicotine strengths without committing to a more expensive or complex vape device.

For this reason, disposable vapes make an excellent and easily accessible smoking cessation method. The NHS states that smokers are twice as likely to quit when using vapes compared to other quit-smoking products. Vaping is also far less damaging to health than smoking.

Disposable Vape Devices: Investigating The Environmental Impact

Disposable vape devices are designed to be discarded, something that seems at odds with the current ecological agenda. The huge popularity of disposable vapes has placed them firmly in the limelight, and critics have not held back in their concerns around disposable vapes.

But what really is the environmental impact of disposable vapes? Are they as profound as the media makes them out to be, or are they becoming victims of their own success?

Disposable Vapes Compared to Other Forms of E-waste

To more accurately measure the impact of disposable vape devices, it is perhaps best to compare them to other forms of e-waste. E-waste is simply unwanted electronic equipment that includes components such as batteries, circuit boards, wires and plugs.

According to the Global E-waste Monitor, The UK is one of the biggest producers of e-waste in the world, generating 23.9 kg per capita, second only to Norway's 26 kg per capita. In 2019, the UK produced 1.7 million tonnes of e-waste with 300 thousand tonnes of that going straight into landfill or with no evidence of recycling.

These figures were taken from the last complete statement from 2019, so clearly electronic waste is an ongoing problem in the UK, and not something that can be attributed solely to disposable vapes. The UK media often quotes the figure that 1.3 million disposable vapes are thrown away each week. This is no doubt having a negative impact on the environment, but how does this compare in weight to other items of e-waste?

Based on current figures, the UK theoretically disposes of 1,892 tonnes of disposable vapes a year, with roughly 70% of that going straight to landfill or incineration. That equates to roughly 0.019 kg per capita which is roughly 0.07% of the UKs current e-waste per capita. Clearly then, the problem of disposable vapes does not meaningfully add to the UK's total e-waste.

However, any additional e-waste would be foolish to completely dismiss, especially given the current ecological crisis. Disposable vapes commonly comprise plastic, lithium batteries, e-liquid and a small amount of circuitry. The first and second of these ostensibly pose a significant risk to the environment, but to what extent?

Plastic Waste

It doesn't take long to see that most disposable vape bodies are made of hard plastic which can take hundreds of years to decompose. When these devices are improperly disposed of, they can end up in landfills or the ocean, where they can contribute to pollution and harm wildlife.

Plastic waste is bad, a fact we all must know at this point. However, how does the plastic waste in disposable vapes compare to other sources? By far the biggest source of plastic waste is still from packaging, making up 67% of all UK plastic waste in 2018. E-waste comparatively made up 7.3% of waste, so targeting e-cigarettes over the far more extensive levels of plastic packaging seems like an odd priority.

The UK government has taken some action against plastic packaging in an effort to reduce levels across the country. The most recent ban was on plastic straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds, which effectively stopped billions of items of plastic from entering the ecosystem.

There is also a ban on the horizon for plastic food packaging, but should disposable vapes be banned in such a similar fashion? Their plastic content and the volumes that are being discarded certainly indicate they should, but banning them would remove a useful smoking cessation tool from shelves and work against current NHS efforts.

Could a change in material could both keep disposable vapes available and lessen their environmental impact? Plastic straws were simply replaced by paper alternatives, and plastic stirrers by wood. This may seem a churlish suggestion for the body of an electronic device, but there are already brands who are making paper-bodied disposable vape devices. Like other items, perhaps disposable vape devices need only evolve and have more regulation, rather than an outright ban.

Lithium Waste and Ground Pollution

Aside from plastic, lithium waste is also a high-profile ecological issue associated with disposable vapes. Each disposable vape contains a small lithium battery that is pre-charged and is key to the convenience of these devices. The complaints about lithium batteries in vapes seem to be twofold: the first issue being ground pollution, the second being material waste.

When lithium batteries are not properly disposed of, the chemicals and metals inside them can leach into the soil and groundwater, leading to contamination. These chemicals and metals can be toxic to both plants and animals, and they can also make their way into the food chain.

This is the case with all items that contain a lithium battery. The simple answer to this problem is a reliable recycling network that can safely dispose of lithium cells. Unfortunately, unlike with acid based batteries, lithium battery recycling is still in its infancy. Furthermore, recycling disposable vapes is challenging for consumers, as we will explore later on in more detail.

The second most common problem with lithium batteries is the apparent waste of materials, as reported by numerous outlets. One such example is in a brief by Action on Smoking and Health claiming that 10 tonnes of lithium is discarded every year through disposable vapes, enough for 1,200 electric cars. While this might initially sound alarming, the figures mentioned are in fact relatively small.

In an apparent response to ASH, the Adam Smith Institute reminded readers that lithium mines produce between 10,000 and 100,000 tonnes of lithium a year. So 10 tonnes being 'lost' to the production of disposable vapes would only have a microscopic impact on green technologies such as electric cars.

While the lithium batteries in disposable vapes certainly poses a threat to the environment if disposed of irresponsibly, the impact it has on green industries is miniscule. To combat the effect of lithium batteries being discarded, the only realistic answer would be to recycle vapes - but how easy is that?