Planet of the vapes: How big a problem are e-cigarettes, and where can they be recycled?

Disposable electronic cigarettes for sale in a shop. There is a lot of confusion over how to dispose of the devices in the UK.
Disposable electronic cigarettes for sale in a shop. There is a lot of confusion over how to dispose of the devices in the UK. Copyright AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
By Euronews Green
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Three-quarters of people in the UK say they don’t recycle their vapes, which contain a cocktail of precious and hazardous materials.

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Electronic cigarettes have taken the UK by storm in recent years, with a deluge of varieties for sale on the high street. No social gathering is complete in 2023 without someone puffing away in the corner on a small tube that smells of cherry.

Touted as a healthier alternative to tobacco smoking, there are increasing concerns about the health and environmental impacts of vaping.

More than 1.3 million single-use vapes are thrown away in Britain each week, according to a study by e-waste recycling organisation Material Focus.

“Vape pollution is a huge problem currently for the environment,” says Kwok Yan Man, CEO of nonprofit the Green Wings Project.

“Single use e-cigarettes contain precious materials such as aluminium, lithium, and stainless steel - all materials that can be used for other functions such as making cars. They are also covered in plastic.”

As regulators scramble to catch up with this complicated new waste form, here’s what is already being done in an attempt to tackle the problem.

Is the UK going to ban vapes?

Canva
More than 1.3 million single-use vapes are thrown away in the UK each week.Canva

The UK government will propose plans to tackle vape disposal before the end of the year, as part of a wider reform of e-waste regulations.

Though there’s some enthusiasm for a disposable vape ban among MPs (a separate Bill for this is currently progressing through the House of Commons), the government is unlikely to go all the way in its revamp of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations.

More likely, it seems, are new measures to make producers design their products better and pay towards recycling them. That could lead to a rise in refillable vapes.

“Producers, importers and retailers of disposable single-use vapes have been avoiding their clear legal and financial obligations around takeback and recycling,” Material Focus’s executive director Scott Butler told sustainability outlet edie.

Why are vapes so hard to recycle?

75 per cent of UK users admit they ‘never’ recycle their used devices, according to new research from the Green Wings Project.

It’s hard to know what to do with disposable e-cigarettes which are made up of a lithium battery attached to a cartridge and encased in plastic.

As their batteries and circuit boards break down, vapes leach toxic chemicals into the environment while their casing grinds down into harmful microplastics. If damaged when they are thrown away, lithium batteries can cause fires at waste disposal plants.

And it’s not just that vapes are taking up room in landfill and damaging the environment. Not recycling the lithium and other valuable parts like copper within them also represents a kind of waste given the demand for these metals in our swiftly electrifying world.

On average, vapes contain 0.15g of lithium. The 1.3 million devices discarded in the UK each week add up to 10 tonnes of lithium a year. That is the equivalent of the lithium in batteries inside 1,200 electric vehicles.

Where can you recycle vapes in the UK?

AP Photo
FEELM's scheme offers retail shop drop-off points for consumers.AP Photo

In theory, retailers have a responsibility to help you dispose of e-waste like vapes.

Under UK law, shops are obliged to take back and recycle all small electronic items for free - regardless of whether or not you bought the vape in their shop. Smaller shops that can’t do this themselves are meant to pay a fee to fund the take back, collection and treatment of these products when they become waste.

But that isn’t always clear to vapers or the wider industry, the UK Vape Association has warned.

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Where there’s an environmental problem, there’s a host of entrepreneurs popping up to solve it.

Green Wings Project says it has created a “first-of-its-kind” system in the UK to fully recycle the various components of e-cigarettes.

Green Wings Project
Green Wings Project's vape recycling unit.Green Wings Project

“We have launched a recycling solution which has facilitated the recycling of over 500,000 vapes to date,” said CEO Kwok Yan Man.

The nonprofit is providing vape recycling facilities at a number of festivals this summer - in an attempt to catch the empties from young users, a key demographic.

Vape companies, of course, have a vested interest in tackling one of the industry’s major issues. FEELM, which makes ceramic coils used in many popular vape brands, is behind a new initiative encouraging e-smokers to send their single-use devices off for recycling.

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Brits can book a free collection slot through the Royal Mail, and receive a free vape for every 10 they return.

As with e-waste more widely, council-run local recycling centres, big supermarkets and electrical stores should all be able to help you out. This map identifies your nearest collection point.

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