Walk down the street, and you will probably spot finger-sized colourful plastic tubes discarded on the ground.
Disposable vapes are booming in popularity, especially among those aged 18-34. They are easy to use and cheap.
But campaigners say they are an environmental nightmare with one activist calling for them to be banned.
The vape industry told BBC News that the problem lies with unclear disposal rules and that there needs to be better national schemes for recycling.
Disposable vapes – which last for around 600 “puffs” – contain valuable materials such as lithium batteries and copper, as well as plastic, meaning they are classed as Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE).
Consumers should dispose of them at a household recycling centre or at the shop where they bought the device.
“The disposable ones are just so readily available at the counter of every corner shop, right next to the chewing gum. It’s hard to make the jump from a £5 ready-to-go vape, to a £20+ reusable contraption that might leak and is more hassle,” she told BBC News.
She said she had no idea they were recyclable and that the “messaging could definitely be improved”.
“If the vape companies ran social media ads letting people know how to dispose of them, it would grab our attention,” she suggested.
A recent study suggested more than half of vapes are thrown directly in the bin. Up to 1.3 million single-use vapes are thrown away each week, according to Material Focus, a not-for-profit organisation focusing on recycling e-waste.
The lithium batteries – a finite material that rechargeable technology relies on – in these vapes alone equate to 10 tonnes of lithium a year, equivalent to the batteries inside 1,200 electric vehicles.
But they are not straightforward to recycle. If damaged when thrown away, lithium batteries can cause fires at waste disposal plants and need to disposed of carefully, explains Waste Experts, a certified WEEE recycler.
What are disposable vapes?
- A typical disposable vape pen – designed for single-use- contains plastic, copper and lithium
- Under UK laws they must contain 2ml of e-liquid (or 600 ‘puffs’) and a maximum of 2% nicotine
- They are classed as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), which puts them in the same category as goods like kettles
- Doctors say children are being targeted by e-cigarette companies, with bright packaging, exotic flavours and enticing names. The long-term health effects of vaping are unknown
The difficulty of recycling disposable vapes is leading campaigners like Laura Young to call for a ban.
Laura, a PHD student and climate activist, collects discarded vapes littered in her home town of Dundee, Scotland.
“I think people are unaware of just what is inside a disposable vape. People are shocked to find out there is a battery inside, along with many other contraptions,” she says.
Material Focus are pushing for vape recycling to be made much easier, and for manufacturers and retailers to install collection points inside shops.
Currently large shops must take back all items of small electronic products like disposable vapes in store to be recycled for free, regardless of whether the item was bought in that shop.
But the UK Vape Association claims that “there is genuine confusion across the marketplace with respect to the WEEE regulations” as well as “misunderstanding” in the industry about who is responsible for disposal.
One leading vape manufacturer, Elfbar, told BBC News that it recognises the fast growth of the vaping market has “environmental implications.”
It says it plans to address the problem by introducing recycling boxes for retailers to use to collect Elfbar vapes.
“We are also placing great emphasis on the future design of our products so that they have a longer shelf life rather than just being single use,” it said.
Another popular company, Geekbar, declined to comment.
When asked by BBC News about the environmental problem of disposable vapes, the director general of the UK Vape Industry Association suggested the regulations are unclear.
“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,” said John Dunne.
He wants the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to provide clarification on the “rules, regulations and obligations of the industry.”
Defra says the government will set out plans for reform of the existing WEEE regulations “in due course”.
Ella Hambly – BBC News – 2022-10-24.