A silver bullet or a smoking gun?

Marketed as a way to help those seeking to give up smoking cigarettes, vapes are now considered trendy, especially among teenagers, and with the range of flavours, one would think one was choosing sweets rather than something that causes harm to the environment and to human health! According to the UK Government website, “use among younger children is rising, with 9 per cent of 11 to 15 year olds now using vapes”.

With the increase in vaping, disposal of the devices is becoming a problem; they are increasingly being seen as an item of litter.  A 2023 report from the BBC estimates that five million disposable vapes are thrown away each week in the UK; four times as many as in the previous year. The government is planning to bring in legislation to ban single-use disposablevapes, which is great to hear; nevertheless, the problem won’t diminish in the interim.

The vapes have components, many recyclable, in the one package: hard plastics, lithium, aluminium, steel, copper, cobalt, nickel, manganese, plus heavy metals like lead and mercury. Isn’t that bonkers! If just the lithium was recycled, in a year there would be enough to make batteries for over 1,200 electric cars. So there’s a huge amount of unnecessary waste.

How many of us are aware that e-cigarettes/vapes come under the UK WEEE Regulations (waste, electrical, electronic equipment)?  As such they should be returned to the retailer for responsible disposal with a registered recycler.  Scott Butler, executive director of Material Focus (a non-profit organisation), said:

“The environmental responsibilities of vape producers and retailers are very clear. Any company producing significant quantities of electrical items is required to register, report their sales and finance the cost of their product being recycled. Retailers are also responsible for ensuring that it’s easy for their customers to recycle these products by providing recycling drop-off points in their stores.

It’s really important, too, that disposable vapes are not put out for kerbside recycling with the other household batteries, or into the general waste bin either.  The batteries inside can explode during collection or within recycling centres, presenting a danger to staff and property.

If you are a vaper, what can you do to minimise the impact on the environment?  Perhaps choose to use devices with rechargeable batteries.  Also, when a new one is purchased, take the old one back to the same retailer and ask if they have a take-back scheme (whatever they may say, retailers have a responsibility to provide a way for customers buying new vapes to dispose of their old ones).  If not, perhaps mention to the vapes outlet, that there are recycling schemes which retailers can join. Veolia has recently launched one, for example, which has a free collection service.  Biffa and Devon Contract Waste also offer a recycling service. Let’s see if we can stop this litter from proliferating and save the valuable materials that would otherwise be scrapped.