Regulators, manufacturers and consumers all bear a responsibility to minimize the environmental impact of the batteries used to power electronic nicotine-delivery devices.
By George Gay
A local councilor wrote a letter to me in February that went out to all his constituents, and, since he had taken the trouble to write at a time when elections weren’t due, I felt I should do him the courtesy of replying. So I did. I expounded at length my theories about how, in the face of the current existential environmental crisis, we should do away with all private cars by starting a campaign at the local level. (If you’re ever having trouble sleeping, call me, and I shall go through my ideas with you.)
Abolishing private cars, I pointed out, would cause, for instance, a colossal saving on road maintenance costs, a huge fall in serious road accidents, a dramatic drop in pollution, a life-enhancing saving for the health service, an increase in community cohesion and an astronomical fall in criminality. I also pointed out that switching to electric cars will not save the environment partly because, according to recent research, nanoplastic contamination has been polluting Greenland’s ice cap for at least 50 years, and a quarter of the polluting particles are from vehicle tires.
“I think it’ll be a brave person who tries to ban them [private cars],” replied my councilor, who, as far as I can tell, is an intelligent, well-meaning person. “Inconsiderate parking forms by far the largest part of my email box,” ran his next sentence.
One of my concerns here is that I am going mad. What I seem to be hearing is that you would have to be afraid of public reaction if you tried to ban private cars, even though one negative aspect of the use of such cars is on the uppermost rung of the angry ladder within many people’s minds. Surely, if you harnessed this anger and appealed to people to think about the existential crisis as it pertains to their children and grandchildren, you would have the basis for a campaign.
But I don’t think so. I believe a lot of people are able to function reasonably normally while keeping multiple opposing views in their minds simultaneously. “Yes, I’m worried about the effects of climate change, and I would do anything to prevent harming children, but I wouldn’t give up my polluting car for anything.” Hmm. Have you ever thought about having your head examined, you unbelievably irrational, selfish person?
But perhaps, completely out of character, I’m being unfair. Perhaps such confused thinking is not surprising in a complex world. Where, for instance, should one stand in respect of e-cigarettes and other battery-driven devices aimed at helping smokers switch to less risky products? Sure, there are huge, direct personal health benefits to be reaped by smokers of combustible cigarettes switching to e-cigarettes, but what about the indirect negative effects caused by the careless discarding of e-cigarette batteries, about which this piece is mainly concerned, and other materials? How do these effects, which impinge upon nonusers too, compare with those of discarded cigarette butts? And where do heat-not-burn devices, with their batteries and butts, come into the equation?
What’s the problem, you might ask. Well, from my admittedly less-than-comprehensive internet research, most electronic vapor devices use lithium-ion batteries, which are compact, complex devices designed without disassembly in mind, though various of their elements can be recycled. Simply put, they comprise a cathode, anode, separator and electrolyte. Battery technology is developing all the time, but, currently, they might contain, among other things, copper, aluminum, cobalt, nickel, manganese or rare earth metallic elements. And, of course, lithium. Given that these batteries contain heavy metals and toxic chemicals, disposing of them in landfill sites, where they will eventually leak, gives rise to concerns about soil contamination, water pollution and combustion.
The good news is that these batteries, or parts of them, can be recycled, and, in many countries, there are facilities for such recycling. The bad news is that recycling is not without its problems. It might, for instance, involve chemical or mechanical separation, and/or smelting and, as part of these high-energy processes, give rise to significant electrical, chemical and thermal issues and costs.
Another concern lies in the figures. Some figures suggest that “up to” 90 percent of battery elements can be recycled, which is less than comforting because it could mean anywhere from 0 percent to 90 percent. And, in any case, this speaks only to the percentages of battery materials that can be recycled. Because of technical, economic, logistical, regulatory and other factors, fewer than 5 percent of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled.
This 5 percent figure refers to all lithium-ion batteries, so, given that car batteries are of the same type, either there will be a big push to make the recycling of such batteries more efficient than it currently is, or we are going to wind up with a mountain of used batteries in landfill sites. Again, from my reading, in the absence of organized, large-scale recycling operations, battery manufacturers will continue to concentrate on lowering the costs of production and increasing battery longevity and charge capacity. Increasing battery longevity provides an advantage, but it should not be allowed to stand in for recycling.
Fortunately, there are commercial and other benefits to recycling, but, as above, they are often canceled out by the perceived downsides. One swing factor is the price of the metals concerned. If the cost of mining them is higher than the cost of recycling them, then recycling is likely to get a look in; otherwise, probably not. That is the logic of the free market. But this is not a simple matter because decisions are influenced by the fact that mines and recycling facilities are capital intensive and take a relatively long time to set up whereas CEO bonuses are determined on the basis of annual reports. Such short-term factors are also likely to cloud the advantage that recycling might prevent future shortages of cobalt and nickel, for instance. And it might encourage battery manufacturers to ignore the fact that metal supply chains often start in a limited number of countries, some of which are not politically stable.
So far, I have written only about vaping devices, but there are different types, and it is perhaps unfortunate that disposables seem to be on the rise. Whereas rechargeable devices will last a while and have easily removable batteries that, in many countries, can be taken to local recycling centers, disposables last a matter of days, have batteries that cannot be removed easily and must be taken in their entirety to specialist e-waste centers where they are available.
So what are e-cigarette suppliers doing about the environmental impact of their products? Some are required to take seemingly modest action—given the state we are in—under regulations such as the EU’s Directive that sets targets for the collection, recovery and recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment in general. Some are trying to do the right thing by providing online advice about how consumers can dispose of vaping device elements so as to ensure as far as possible that these elements are recycled. Some are setting up systems that allow customers to return used devices so that the suppliers arrange for recycling, sometimes in respect of all devices, including those of other suppliers. One Tobacco Reporter report based on a story in the Budapest Business Journal in August said Philip Morris International had inaugurated an e-cigarette recycling center on the outskirts of Budapest capable of recycling 150,000 electronic tobacco devices a month. This was said to have been PMI’s second such facility, the first one having been opened in Japan. But there were no other details, so the story raised more questions than it answered, making it difficult to judge how seriously the recycling issue was being taken.
I must say that I am not filled with confidence. If you look at the history of the tobacco/nicotine industry, we never got on top of the carelessly discarded cigarette butts issue, and now, well into the second decade of vaping devices and past the point of no return in respect of environmental breakdown, there seems to be no plan for a coordinated industry approach to the issue of carelessly discarded vaping devices. Indeed, there seems little interest, let alone a plan. Asked to contribute to this story, BAT, Imperial Brands and Japan Tobacco International each said no thanks. Juul and PMI didn’t reply. Vaping associations in the U.K. and the U.S., while showing initial interest, fell by the wayside.
Of course, the industry is not wholly to blame for the situation we are in. Governments and regulators shoulder some of the responsibility. The cigarette butts problem could have been largely overcome years ago by regulators having the courage to ban cigarette filters. At the same time, it is hardly fair to blame the U.S. vaping device industry for being reluctant to invest heavily in respect of environmental issues when the regulatory framework within which suppliers operate is chaotic. And it has to be said that in banning snus, the tobacco harm reduction product with what must be by far and away the best environmental credentials, the EU has clearly indicated that it would rather indulge in political posturing than environmental protection.
And then, of course, we come to consumers, many of whom seem not to be concerned about carelessly discarding cigarette butts, vaping devices and any other products that they no longer have use for. They, of course, have the power to end most of the environmental problems, but just as they won’t give up their cars, they won’t stop using the streets as giant trash cans. But perhaps I’m being unfair again. While it is reasonable, I think, to expect smokers to dispose of cigarette butts responsibly, the dismantling of some vaping devices and the disposal of their constituent parts might be a stretch for the average brain.
What the industry needs to be wary of is the fact that no matter what consumers do, the industry will get the blame for environmental problems caused by its products. Those people who are opposed to vaping will use environmental issues to undermine these products, no matter how many lives they might save. The Truth Initiative, for instance, says that e-cigarette manufacturers are failing to provide consumers with guidance or take responsibility for appropriate disposal methods, presumably trying to justify why, according to the initiative, “[o]nly 15 percent of young e-cigarette users reported disposing of empty pods or disposable vapes by dropping them off or sending them for electronic recycling.” And it compares e-cigarettes unfavorably with cigarettes when it comes to environmental issues. “E-cigarette waste is potentially a more serious environmental threat than cigarette butts since e-cigarettes introduce plastic, nicotine salts, heavy metals, lead, mercury and flammable lithium-ion batteries into waterways, soil and to wildlife,” the Truth Initiative says. “Unlike cigarette butts, e-cigarette waste won’t biodegrade even under severe conditions. E-cigarettes left on the street eventually break down into microplastics and chemicals that flow into the storm drains to pollute our waterways and wildlife.”
That is worrying. So perhaps it is time for the industry to concentrate on producing products that break down almost harmlessly if discarded in the street. Would such a product be possible? Certainly, it would have to be one without a battery and would therefore produce a different consumer experience. So the question arises as to whether consumers would be willing to have what is perhaps a less satisfying experience in the knowledge that they were making a positive contribution to the environment.
I doubt it. But there is another way, and given that we are in such an environmental mess, it should not be ruled out. We could go in reverse. While leaving on sale filterless cigarettes, pipe tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, cigars, snuff and snus, regulators could ban filtered cigarettes, roll-your-own filters and electronic vaping devices. At the same time, the door could be left open for manufacturers to come up with new, less risky tobacco/nicotine products that were not hugely damaging to the environment.