E-cigarette policy should consider environmental effects, expert says

30 October 2018:
By Carolyn Crist
Source: Reuters

(Reuters Health) – Health policy debates around electronic cigarettes should consider the health of the environment, too, according to an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health.

Each stage of the e-cigarette product lifecycle, including mining, manufacturing, using and disposing, could pose a potential environmental harm, wrote Yogi Hale Hendlin of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco

“E-waste is a huge problem globally. Anytime we make something that is disposable, we’re essentially stealing from the future,” said Hendlin.

In 2015, more than 58 million e-cigarettes and refills were sold in the U.S. at grocery stores and convenience stores, which doesn’t include vape shops or online sales, Hendlin said, citing from a 2017 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 19 million of those products were designed for single use. The resulting e-waste is often shipped from Western countries to developing countries, which places the environmental hazard of reprocessing, reclaiming and incinerating waste on poorer nations, he said.

“Most of these devices don’t include instructions on how to dispose of the products,” Hendlin told Reuters Health by phone. “And the ones that do often include a convoluted process, and it gets incinerated in the end, which isn’t ecological at all.”

No studies have yet tracked disposal patterns of e-cigarettes, Hendlin explained in the editorial, but research still underway suggests they’re often thrown out as litter in the same way as cigarette butts.

Spent e-cigarette capsules and nicotine-filled pods contain plastics, electronic circuitry and nicotine residue, sometimes enough to qualify as hazardous waste, Hendlin wrote, citing from a 2015 study by University of Florida researchers. These devices can leach heavy metals such as mercury, lead and bromines, as well as battery acid, into the ground. The particles may pose choking hazards for small children and animals.

Disposable e-cigarettes may create the highest environmental costs because they are used for a short period of time, such as 400 puffs or 20-40 cigarettes’ worth of vapor, as compared to refillable devices that only require changing out the nicotine liquid, or “juice.”

Hendlin suggested closing the waste loop with the “extended producer responsibility” model, which is used in the electronics industry. Manufacturers establish and publicize end-of-life buyback programs to collect products, avoid having them go into the trash, and recycle them properly. With computer monitors and printer ink, for instance, recycling programs with monetary incentives often encourage consumers to return the items for a discount on new purchases.

Currently in the e-cigarette industry, Altria has instituted two disposal programs, Hendlin wrote. Green Smoke allows consumers to mail in 80 used e-cigarette cartridges of any type or brand for reward points for Green Smoke cartridges. Similarly, MarkTen batteries can be recycled with the organization Call2Recycle, which has national drop-off locations in metropolitan areas.

Instead of relying on the industry to make changes, Hendlin said, the Food and Drug Administration could require e-cigarette manufacturers to reduce environmental waste. All products submitted to the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products require an Environmental Impact Assessment or a Finding of No Significant Impact, but the deadline for e-cigarettes has been postponed from 2018 to 2022, he added.

“The environmental concerns related to e-cigarette production and disposal add to existing concerns about these new(ish) nicotine delivery systems,” said Ross MacKenzie of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. MacKenzie, who wasn’t involved with this study, researches cigarette butt disposal and the tobacco industry in Australia.

Future studies should look at the volume and toxicity of discarded materials, he said. Hendlin and colleagues in San Francisco, for instance, are measuring how cigarettes and e-cigarettes are littered in the Bay area. So far, they’re finding more e-cigarette waste in affluent areas.

“Environmental impacts are yet another thing we don’t know about e-cigarettes,” MacKenzie told Reuters Health by email.