3 May 2023
By Emma Snaith, The Guardian
Single-use e-cigarettes send tonnes of valuable lithium to landfill in the UK. Why not ban them, as Australia did?
Take a walk down any busy street, and you’re bound to find dozens of candy-coloured plastic cylinders littering the ground. Millions of these disposable vapes are now thrown away every month in the UK. And hidden inside each one is a lithium battery – made of a material crucial for the transition to renewables.
Last month, I found myself buying an Elf Bar disposable vape on a night out. I try not to make a habit of vaping, but it feels far too easy to pick one up when they’re eyecatchingly displayed right next to the chewing gum in every corner shop. For weeks, the vape lay next to my bin. I knew I had to recycle it, but how do you actually go about doing that? I soon found myself falling down a blueberry smoke-filled rabbit hole.
There was no clue on the packaging of the vape about how to properly dispose of it. A tiny white symbol of a crossed-out bin is the only indication that the device shouldn’t just be placed with the rest of your rubbish. So perhaps it’s not surprising that more than half of disposable vapes bought in the UK are simply thrown away, according to research by recycling non-profit Material Focus.
A Google search brought me to the Recycle your Electricals campaign website, which advises either removing the battery from your vape (if you can) and recycling the parts separately, or returning the whole device to a retailer or a local authority recycling point. Easy, I thought. But at a local supermarket none of the staff were aware of a take-back scheme for recycling vapes, even though retailers selling £100,000 worth are obliged to provide this service. Instead, I was pointed towards the battery recycling bin in the corner of the shop.
Back at home and armed with two pairs of scissors and questionable advice from YouTube, I eventually managed to prise the bottom off the vape and pull out the battery. In hindsight this wasn’t the best idea as, if accidentally punctured, lithium batteries can cause fires. (I later found out that groups like Material Focus do not advise dismantling single-use vapes yourself.)
When I finally returned to the supermarket, I found the battery recycling bin full of whole intact vapes. Clearly there is a lot of confusion about how to properly dispose of these devices. I wished I’d avoided the faff of removing the batteries and just walked half an hour to the nearest small electrical recycling centre. But realistically how many people are going to make the same trip for something advertised as “disposable”?
Currently 1.3m single-use vapes are thrown away every week in the UK, according to recycling group Material Focus. When littered, they can leach dangerous metals, battery acid, and nicotine into the environment. Plus, each vape contains on average 0.15g of lithium, which equates to 10 tonnes thrown away over a year in the UK – enough to make around 1,200 electric car batteries. Producing this metal is an environmentally costly process that uses huge amounts of energy and water. At a time when we are relying on lithium and the batteries it powers to fuel the transition to clean energy, it seems ludicrous to be casually throwing tonnes of it away with single-use vapes.
So what should be done? Scott Butler, executive director of Material Focus, says that all retailers that sell vapes should have drop-off points in stores (as per existing regulations) and is calling for collection points in public areas near parks, nightclubs and bars too. He adds that “the industry should stop calling them disposables – all vapes can be recycled if collected”.
But I’m inclined to agree with campaigners who believe an outright ban is the only real solution. Laura Young, a PhD student and climate activist, collected a vape a minute during a walk through her home city of Dundee and warns that we already have a “failed record” of recycling basic products like bottles and cans. So what chance do we have with fiddly items such as vapes? She points out that a ban would still allow for people to use more cost-effective reusable vapes.
Momentum is certainly growing on this issue. Earlier this year, the Conservative MP Caroline Johnson introduced a private member’s bill to prohibit the sale of disposable electronic cigarettes. Meanwhile, the Scottish government has commissioned an urgent review into the environmental impact of disposable vapes and 10 councils have agreed to write to Holyrood in support of a ban. Could the UK follow Australia, which this week announced plans to ban all disposable vapes as part of a major crackdown?
In the meantime, two disposable vapes are being thrown away every second in the UK. My frustrating mission to try and recycle one has certainly put me off buying another. But how many others actually realise what they’re throwing away?