Waste not, want not – battle lines are drawn over the field of disposable vapes

They may still be controversial – we’ve heard from both sides repeatedly in the pages of ECigIntelligence – but when it comes to the fundamental arguments on the healthiness or otherwise of e-cigarettes, there is at least always an argument to be made.

When one side says e-cigs are not safe, the other can say, with science on its side: “Maybe not, but they’re a lot less dangerous than combustible cigarettes.” When one declares categorically that vaping is a gateway to smoking, the other can retort – again with scientific backing – “Oh no, it’s not.” On the nicotine question (is more better, or worse?) there are valid-sounding points to be made either way.

When it comes to the matter we pinpointed at the start of the year as a major theme for 2023, it’s a lot harder to see a ready riposte to the growing calls for tougher regulation. While e-cigs may or may not be on balance a good thing for humans, it’s hard to see the boom in disposables as anything other than a sore point for the planet.

Some kudos to those vaping companies that are at least recognising the issue and considering the importance of recycling. But while recycling boxes in shops, and a “polluter pays” approach to littering, are no doubt steps in a responsible direction, they aren’t, and cannot be, a complete answer to what threatens to become a serious environmental worry.

John Dunne, director general of the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA), evades the question when he says: “Banning single-use vape devices is not the answer as it would deny millions of smokers the opportunity to switch to an alternative to tobacco which is at least 95% less harmful than smoking.”

That may be true, but it’s not the point here. That point is the one made succinctly by Sandra Redmann of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) in putting a motion to the state parliament of Schleswig-Holstein calling for an outright ban on disposables at both national and EU level: “Disposable e-cigarettes contain an integrated battery and must therefore be properly disposed of in recycling centres. However, it can be assumed that the greatest proportion of single-use e-cigarettes are thrown in the general waste and not disposed of properly. This results in a loss of raw materials and the danger of fires.”


‘Staggering’ waste – and a recommended alternative

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    Plastic waste, of course, is a huge global problem that goes way beyond e-cigarettes. As is the issue of discarded – literally wasted – raw material in the form of lithium in batteries that could be (but aren’t) recharged and reused.

    But it’s not just in Germany, arguably the green leader of Europe, that single-use e-cigs have come to the forefront of attention. A petition organised by the Scottish Greens, partners in the coalition running Scotland’s devolved government, also calls for a ban.

    “Disposable vapes are littering our local high streets and damaging our parks, rivers and beaches,” it says. “With 1.3 million thrown away every week, the amount of waste they produce, including lithium batteries, is staggering. They have the potential to damage our environment and set us back significantly on our journey to a low-waste economy. There are already better and far less environmentally damaging solutions such as rechargeable vapes.”

    Now Derby City Council, in the English Midlands, advises: “Unfortunately, disposable vapes are now commonly littered on streets as well. As they become exposed to the elements, they begin to break down, leeching heavy metals and pieces of plastic into the environment and valuable materials like copper, gold and lithium, that could have been recycled are lost.”

    And “an even better choice” than recycling, it says, “is to invest in a reusable vape kit”.

    If that’s the mood music coming out of even such a vape-friendly land as the UK, it’s not hard to predict battles ahead in all quarters for the makers, sellers and apologists for the e-cig wing of the throwaway society.

    Aidan Semmens ECigIntelligence staff

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    Aidan Semmens