It may not be the foremost argument against smoking, but ask anyone who goes assiduously litter-picking and they’ll tell you that cigarette butts are a blight on the environment almost everywhere. With around 4.5tn cigarette ends casually discarded every year, the National Geographic describes them as “the most littered item on Earth” and a major source of microplastic pollution. Waste and pollution on that scale is a global problem the world is somewhat belatedly waking up to.
So is this, along with the much-debated issue of personal health, another point in favour of vaping? Not according to experts at the recent World Health Organization (WHO) conference, who spoke of “heavy plastic with metal parts, which is difficult to recycle”.
And that’s assuming most users even make any attempt to recycle items that are labelled “disposable” – which are booming in popularity and are also potentially the biggest environmental villains in the e-cigarette catalogue.
Exaggerated scare stories about “exploding” e-cigs may fire the imagination of tabloid news editors but they don’t deliver the real bad news about lithium batteries. That’s much more to do with the waste of an increasingly eagerly sought mineral, and the high social and environmental cost of lithium mining in places such as Chile’s Atacama desert.
One of the major points in favour of lithium batteries is rechargeability – which ought to be a good thing from the green perspective – but that benefit is literally thrown away in the case of disposable e-cigs.
Free, easy and environmentally friendly
Now comes an initiative from a 26-year-old engineer and PhD student who has organised a team of volunteers to set up and maintain recycling bins in the dorms and on the campus where he studies and teaches, specifically to collect disposable e-cigs and retrieve their batteries. These are then not recycled in the sense of being broken down for their components but, better still, converted to make them rechargeable and reused intact.
As Maksym Sheremet told The Independent: “We started collecting e-cigarettes after the price of lithium batteries really rose a month ago. It’s free, easy to repurpose and environmentally friendly.
“It’s very easy to solder this stuff, it is not a difficult job. You cannot put electric cigarettes in the trash because of the lithium battery; it is a serious fire risk and terrible for the environment.”
The twist in this initially heartwarming tale is the purpose Sheremet is putting his reclaimed batteries to. It’s a purpose you might well applaud – depending which side of a major conflict you stand on – but it’s a strange one to be making health or environment claims for. War is never notably beneficial to either.
After being collected from students in Kyiv, those former e-cig batteries are now powering drones delivering weaponry, bombs and ammunition (and medical supplies) to the soldiers on Ukraine’s front line in the fight against Russia.
– Aidan Semmens ECigIntelligence staff
Photo: Marco Verch