Just an ordinary street in an ordinary town. OK, it happens to be Aberdeen in northeast Scotland, which is technically a city, and its inhabitants might object to it being called ordinary, but in one respect it could be almost any street in any town anywhere in the so-called civilised world. The pavement is perhaps marked with fewer chewing-gum blots than they would once have been, and there are surely fewer cigarette stubs in the gutter. But among the crisp packets, fast food wrappers and beer cans a new breed of litter is proliferating, arguably a far worse pollutant than any of those yet mentioned.
The name on the packet lying idly in the morning sun, Lost Mary, seems somehow appropriate. But it’s not the packet, made of readily biodegradable card, that’s the trouble – it’s the lost contents. Which, of course, might easily have been of some other brand.
Even if that disposable pod isn’t littering a gutter somewhere but has gone to landfill, that’s a piece of electrical equipment discarded after being used just once. A device including small but irrecoverable quantities of various metals, a larger quantity of plastic, and a lithium battery – which is not only a small but not totally insignificant fire risk as it degrades, but also adds to the globally troubling environmental damage being done by lithium mining, especially in South America.
If it’s lying on a street, or a beach, or among the rising tide of litter washing up by the side of any road, it will be leeching heavy metals, valuable copper, gold, lithium and bits of plastic into the environment.
Each discarded vape may not pose much threat to town or countryside, but this is just one among an estimated 1.3m that are chucked away every week in the UK alone.
The state we’re in
It is, of course, just one part of a huge global problem of waste and environmental pollution that stems from almost everything people do – from smartphones to junk mail, plastic wrapping of vegetables to ever bigger and “cleverer” cars.
And yes, as many vaping advocates will argue, disposable vapes may help millions of smokers quit a deadly habit. Yes, too, as the anti-vape activists will say, they may get millions of kids hooked on nicotine. Their ready availability may also be damaging the market in reusable vaping devices and e-liquid refills, which arguably provide all the benefits to far less detriment.
All this is background to the growing calls in many countries, including Scotland, for a ban on disposable vapes. And it is also closely tied to moves in both the EU and the US towards environmental regulations that – while not related solely or specifically to the e-cig and tobacco sectors – are likely to have a major impact on them.
In the US, typically, most of the legislative action is taking place at state level. While New York seems to be alone so far in seriously considering banning single-use e-cigarettes, bills on the table in other states cover recycling, packaging, waste management, sustainability reporting, the “right to repair”, and restrictions on batteries and plastics, any or all of which could have repercussions throughout the e-cig industry, from manufacturer to vaper.
Calls emanating increasingly loudly from Germany, Belgium and France for an EU-wide ban on disposables may fall on hearing-impaired ears in Brussels. And in the former-EU UK, advocates were disappointed and rumours disproved when last week’s budget announcement failed to include a tax on disposables.
Benefitting the big boys?
But though they are taking longer than anticipated to draw up, agree and impose, new EU rules on plastics, waste and electronics are likely to increase the regulatory burden on the vaping sector generally. And like so much regulation of all kinds, they may in the long run prove beneficial to the bigger players in the industry, who are more able than their smaller competitors to afford costly changes to manufacturing practices.
Batteries are inevitably in the spotlight, as are environmental claims – which companies may be required to prove – consumer rights and product obsolescence.
Proposed measures on plastics include encouragement of bio-based, biodegradable materials, and attempts to curb microplastics pollution (which may sound like Canute trying to send back the tide). Other suggested measures would tighten the rules on packaging and toxic or hazardous chemicals, and require electrical equipment to remain usable for longer – which may have obvious implications for disposable vapes.
Much of this is covered by the ambitious Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP), which encourages “sustainable consumption”. This in turn is part of the European Green Deal put forward in 2019, which “aims to protect, conserve and enhance the EU’s natural capital, and protect the health and well-being of citizens from environment-related risks and impacts”.
This sounds awfully laudable and may, just possibly, be of ultimate benefit to humanity. Sadly, like so much of what comes from human institutions at every level, however well-meaning, it also contains a lot of globally warming hot air. And more than three years since its publication it has not yet produced any noticeable change.
Time during which the market in disposable e-cigarettes has boomed its way into public consciousness and teen trendiness. And meanwhile that little Lost Mary may still be lost by a roadside somewhere.
– Aidan Semmens ECigIntelligence staff
Photo: Aidan Semmens