15 July 2023
By Sarah Marsh, The Guardian
LGA says single-use e-cigarettes are a litter blight and cause problems in bin lorries and recycling centres
Councils are joining paediatricians in calling for a ban on disposable vapes owing to the environmental damage they cause and the soaring number of young people taking up the addictive products.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England and Wales, said urgent action was needed to save taxpayers’ money – as single-use e-cigarettes are costly to recycle without going through special treatment – protect the planet and keep children safe.
With the EU proposing a ban from 2026 and France due to introduce one this December, there are concerns that more vapes could flood into the UK.
Single-use vapes, from brands such as Elf Bar and Lost Mary, have soared in popularity in recent years, and since 2021 the proportion of 11- to 18-year-olds vaping (7.6%) in Great Britain has been greater than that of smoking (3.6%). The latest survey for Action on Smoking and Health found 20.5% of children in Great Britain had tried vaping, up from 15.8% in 2022 and 13.9% before the first Covid lockdown.
Councils said they were especially concerned by the marketing of vapes with designs and flavours that could appeal to children, in particular those with fruity and bubblegum flavours and colourful packaging.
They are calling for a ban by 2024 and immediate measures to regulate the display and marketing of these products in the same way as tobacco.
David Fothergill, the chair of the LGA’s community wellbeing board, said the products were “fundamentally flawed in their design” and “inherently unsustainable”.
He said: “Single-use vapes blight our streets as litter, are a hazard in our bin lorries, are expensive and difficult to deal with in our recycling centres. Their colours, flavours and advertising are appealing to children and the penalties for retailers selling them don’t go far enough.”
Last year, research by Material Focus, a non-profit organisation that runs the Recycle Your Electricals campaign, found that about 1.3m single-use vapes were thrown away each week in the UK. It found that more than 700 fires in bin lorries and recycling centres were caused by batteries that had been dumped into general waste.
The LGA said the lithium batteries could sharply increase in temperature if crushed and could become flammable. This costs taxpayers money through fire damage to equipment and the specialist treatment needed to deal with hazardous waste.
The government is already taking action against single-use plastic, and from 1 October businesses must no longer supply, sell or offer a number of products in England.
Concern has also been raised about the number of illegal disposable vapes recently entering the market, which are particularly popular among young people as often they are sold in shops where ID checks are not as thorough.
Last month the Guardian revealed that millions of illicit and potentially harmful vapes had been seized by trading standards in the last three years, and experts said this was likely to be the tip of the iceberg and that a “tsunami” of products was flooding in.
These e-cigarettes are not compliant with UK regulations and could have higher nicotine concentration levels, contain banned ingredients or have oversized tanks for nicotine liquid. Previous analysis found illicit vapes to contain high levels of lead, nickel and chromium.
Headteachers have expressed concern about the numbers of young people vaping, calling for the health risks associated with it to be included in the curriculum.
Sarah Hannafin, the head of policy at the National Association of Head Teachers, said its members were dealing with incidents of vaping on school premises and were “worried about how accessible vapes seem to be to pupils as well as their safety and how easy they are to conceal”.
Hannafin said: “The health risks of vaping should be included in the RSHE [relationships, sex and health education] curriculum … The government and retailers must do more to prevent under-18s getting these products, whether they are buying them themselves or persuading adults to purchase them on their behalf.”
Children’s doctors have already called for a ban on disposable vapes to reduce their popularity among young people as the long-term impact remains unknown.
Dr Mike McKean, the vice-president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and a paediatric respiratory consultant, said the college had made a “very carefully considered call” amid concern from its members about an “epidemic” of child vaping. It was noted that a small but growing number of children were experiencing respiratory problems.
He said: “It’s no surprise that councils are calling for a ban on single use e-cigarettes. These products are notoriously difficult to recycle and being discarded at alarmingly high rates each week … Youth vaping is fast becoming an epidemic among children, and if concrete action is not taken soon, we will find ourselves sleep walking into a crisis.”
The children’s commissioner for England, Rachel de Souza, also urged ministers to crack down on the “insidious” marketing of vapes to young people. She said the government would be “failing a generation” if these “highly addictive and sometimes dangerous products” were allowed to become mainstream.
John Dunne, the director general of the UK Vaping Industry Association, said blanket bans were not the answer as it could lead to an influx of “untested and potentially deadly black-market products”.
He said: “It also makes absolutely no sense to call for a ban on disposable vapes while ignoring the much bigger problem of smoking and its related litter, which accounts for 68% of all litter in the UK.”
Dunne said the vape industry was “working hard to minimise its environmental impact” but it was “mainly a consumer education issue about how to dispose of used vapes, which overall are evidenced to be highly recyclable”.
A government spokesperson said it had launched a call for evidence to examine the environmental and health impact of vapes and “identify opportunities to reduce the number of children accessing them”. They said: “We strongly encourage all consumers to consider the environment and dispose of electrical waste, including by making use of take-back schemes at participating retailers.”