Disposable vapes look set to be banned in the UK, due to concerns backed by the Local Government Association about teenage addiction, fire risk, and plastic pollution. Whilst factors such as the health risks and addictiveness of vaping are bad enough, the environmental impacts must also be considered. The scale of the waste they produce is staggering, with eight disposable vapes being thrown away every second in the UK according to recent research by Material Focus

It is impossible to deny that urgent action is needed to tackle this major source of pollution, but what about other similar products? What is the environmental impact of smoking? Are reusable vapes the solution to the waste problem? In this article, we break down the most common nicotine-based products to see which, if any, are more sustainable.

Disposable vapes

Two disposable vapes on a black background.
Disposable vapes. Image credit: Olena Bohovyk via Pexel

The term “disposable vapes” includes any vape which is thrown away once used up. These have seen a significant rise in popularity in recent years, increasing by 45% among teenage vapers and 13% among adult vapers between 2021 and 2022. The average life of a disposable vape varies from a few days to a month or more, all depending on the number of “puffs” the product comes with and how often the user vapes. However, from an environmental perspective, even disposable vapes with the highest “puff count” will be thrown away eventually. This means they either end up in landfill and release toxic chemicals and plastics into the soil or are littered and those toxic chemicals end up in local ecosystems.

‘What about recycling?’ is the next question that comes to mind. Certain disposable vapes can be recycled in some countries, including the UK, Australia and Canada. However, the Material Focus report reveals that only around a third of disposable vapes in the UK are recycled.

Besides reducing pollution and landfill waste, recycling disposable vapes is important because they contain metals such as copper, lithium, steel and aluminium– all of which are valuable resources for greener technology such as renewable energy infrastructure and electric cars (read more about minerals and the energy transition here).

Of course, as much as recycling does reduce the impact of disposable vapes, it is time-consuming and cost-intensive compared to reducing their production and use in the first place.

Reusable vapes

Reusable vape held up to the camera by person's hand, in front of unfocused background
Reusable vape. Image credit: haiberliu via Pixabay

One way to convince people to stop doing something is to provide them with an alternative. Vaping itself originated as an alternative to smoking for those trying to quit. So with that in mind, are reusable vapes the appropriate alternative to disposables? The answer is complicated. 

Many popular refillable vapes are only partly reusable. For example, they may include disposable cartridges or “pods” which can be thrown away when they are used up. Some are battery-operated and need their batteries replaced periodically. The ones without replaceable batteries need to be charged regularly, which uses a small amount of energy. Whilst it is clearly true that reusable vapes generate less waste than disposable vapes, there is little information to be found online evaluating the sustainability of reusable vapes overall (though many vape retailers laud them as an eco-friendly smoking alternative).

Cigarettes and tobacco

Close up image of a heap of many cigarette ends, discarded after smoking.
Discarded cigarette butts. Image credit: Freepik

Cigarette butts have been consistently recorded as the most abundant litter type in the world throughout recent decades. The discarded part of a cigarette includes a filter which is generally made from cellulose acetate. This material does not easily degrade, taking up to ten years to fully decompose. During decomposition, it also releases toxic substances into the environment. Whilst it is possible to buy plastic-free smoking filters, these are often less effective at reducing the amount of harmful substances inhaled. Cigarette packaging also typically includes plastics.

To fully understand the environmental cost of smoking however, we have to look at the bigger picture, starting from production. The tobacco farming industry (like any industrial-scale agriculture) is responsible for a wide range of ecological sins, ranging from deforestation to make way for monoculture plantations, to widespread use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers which wreak havoc upon local communities and ecosystems. The result is loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, water pollution, and countless knock-on effects.

So what’s the bottom line? Should all nicotine products be banned? 

From an environmental and health perspective, there’s no doubt that a blanket ban on these products would be a good thing. But a ban of this kind would be extremely difficult to enforce and would likely lead to the unregulated illegal sale of nicotine products. 

Governments and companies often try to pass environmental responsibility to consumers, but the issue of smoking could be one that really is down to individuals to change. If you’re reading as a smoker, we hope this information helps you make a better choice for you and for the world around you!

Be curious!

Featured image by Anton Malanin via Unsplash.

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