The vapor industry should take responsibility for the growing amount of e-waste generated by its business.
By Timothy S. Donahue
It’s a global problem. As the vapor industry grows, e-cigarette waste is also on the rise. According to an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health, each stage of an electronic nicotine-delivery system’s (ENDS) lifecycle, including manufacturing, consumption and disposal, could potentially present a significant amount of environmental harm.
“E-waste is a huge problem globally. Anytime we make something that is disposable, we’re essentially stealing from the future,” wrote Yogi Hendlin, assistant professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands and a research associate at the Environmental Health Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco. Citing a 2017 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, Hendlin said that in 2015, more than 58 million electronic nicotine-delivery systems (ENDS) products and refills were sold in the U.S. at grocery stores and convenience stores (according to Nielsen data). The study did not include vape shops or online sales, where most vapor products are sold.
Of those products, nearly 19 million are designed for single use. While accounting for a minority of vapor products sold, disposable e-cigarettes may create the highest environmental costs because they are used for a short period of time in contrast to refillable devices that only require changing out the e-liquid. “The e-waste from [disposable] products is then shipped to developing countries that then must deal with the environmental hazard of reprocessing, reclaiming and incinerating the waste,” Hendlin wrote.
Speaking with Tobacco Reporter, Hendlin said that it would be “quite a shame” if vapor products, “which may turn out to be less harmful to individual users than traditional cigarettes, end up being ecologically more harmful.” No studies have yet been conducted tracking the consumer patterns for throwing away used e-cigarettes, according to Hendlin. However, there is ongoing research that suggests ENDS products are often thrown out the same way as cigarette butts. “E-cigarette waste is indeed a major problem that the leading companies such as Philip Morris International (PMI), Japan Tobacco (JT), Altria and Juul Labs have all expressed the need to act on,” said Hendlin. “Unfortunately, none of these companies have so far taken the necessary action.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires manufacturers to consider the environment when filing for a premarket tobacco product application (PMTA), according to Patricia Kovacevic, a former tobacco industry attorney and current vapor industry consultant. Regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 mandate that all “applications or petitions requesting agency action require the submission of an EA [environmental assessment] or a claim of categorical exclusion.” The deadline to file the PMTA for all nontobacco flavored products is Aug. 8, 2021.
According to the FDA, the EA “must include brief discussions of the need for the proposed action, the alternatives (as required by section 102(2)(E) of NEPA), the environmental impacts of the proposed action and its alternatives, and a list of agencies and persons consulted. The EA must focus on environmental issues relating to the use and disposal from use of FDA-regulated substances and be a concise, objective and well-balanced document that allows the public to understand the basis for the agency’s decision to prepare an EIS [environmental impact study]. If potentially adverse environmental impacts are identified for an action or group of related actions, the EA must discuss any reasonable alternative courses of action that offer less environmental risk or that are environmentally preferable to the proposed action.”
Environmental assessments are not unique to the FDA, and the PMTA is not subject currently to a categorical exclusion unless the product is not intended to be introduced into interstate commerce, according to Kovacevic. “The product category and the type of submission as a whole would have to be excluded by regulation; it is not something an individual applicant can petition for in the context of tobacco products at this time—unlike other FDA-regulated products, where an exemption may be available,” she said. “However, it may be available in the future if [the] FDA issues a guidance to that effect.”
The FDA’s EA requirement as part of the PMTA process is quite extensive—more than most manufacturers might think, according to Hendlin. “This is because, as we are all very aware, e-cigarettes contain material elements more in common with smartphones than traditional combustible cigarettes,” he said. “According to the Clean Water Act, any debris greater than the 5 mm limit means that the company is responsible to the government for their waste, including fines for excess pollution. For example, Keep America Beautiful, an organization partly founded and sustained by PMI, noted that cigarette butts contribute billions of dollars in cleanup costs in America. If e-cigarettes don’t have a better strategy, the costs could be just as critical.”
Manufacturers first and foremost need to set up good ways of responsibly disposing of their products in the simplest fashion, according to Hendlin. Secondly, manufacturers need to place instructions on their packaging that focuses on how to dispose of the products. “You can’t dispose of them in regular e-waste pickups—I’ve called around and tried. What is needed is manufacturer leadership on picking up and recycling these products,” said Hendlin. “Manufacturers can create disposal sites with bins where people buy the products. With the incentive of money back, consumers will be nudged in the right direction to make recycling their vape elements the norm rather than throwing them away in a conventional trash can.”
There are ways for vapor companies to do something immediately to help lessen the environmental impact of vapor products. Hendlin suggested closing the waste loop with the extended producer responsibility (EPR) model, which is used in the electronics, paint and motor oil industries. “EPR is the notion that if you make a product, you’re responsible for it from cradle to grave (or better yet, from cradle to cradle). That means that companies need to have as robust mechanisms for collecting and reusing/recycling their products at the end of the product’s life as they have for the distribution and marketing at the start of the consumer’s contact with the product,” said Hendlin. “In this sense, when the consumer is done with the product, the producer still owns the thing they unleashed into the environment and thus are expected legally and socially to account for it.”
The opposite of EPR is blaming “bad smokers” or “bad vapers” for disposing of the product irresponsibly, according to Hendlin. “Unless there are robust mechanisms set up to properly dispose of and give the product back after use, then the default is to put all the burden of responsibility on the consumer, which requires many extra steps to even figure out how to responsibly dispose of such products,” he said. “In many cases, unless the company sets up a takeback scheme, there simply does not exist any responsible way to dispose of the product.”
The vapor company GreenSmoke once had a takeback program where any vaper could send back 80 cartridges of any brand to the company and get credits for free GreenSmoke products. This is not EPR, according to Hendlin. A deposit and collection program being considered by Juul Labs, by contrast, should be enacted immediately, he says. This program would involve deposits—say, $1 per pod and $5 per vape unit—that consumers get back when they return their products, along with integrated reverse logistics in which the manufacturer ships orders in prepaid postage packaging that can be used to return spent pods, cartridges or devices. The convenience of such a scheme would increase the likelihood of consumers recycling.
Setting up a strategic EPR model benefits everyone and isn’t something that would cost manufacturers large sums of capital, according to Hendlin. It’s also potentially the type of program that could help a company retain customers. “What consumers get is an easy way to be responsible with their waste. What companies get are corporate social responsibility benefits, including customer loyalty,” he said. “What society gets is less trash, especially less e-waste. It’s a win-win-win.”