• June 12, 2024

The Breakdown

 The Breakdown
Photo: ANDS

The vaping industry is making progress in reducing the environmental impact of single-use e-cigarettes.

By George Gay

The U.K. vaping industry is under notice in respect of single-use vapes. It has, according to one politician with considerable knowledge of the industry, a “window of opportunity” to defend itself against those demanding a ban on these products—a window that could slam shut at any moment.

Pressure is building for a ban mainly on grounds of the negative environmental impact of single-use vapes, an issue that cannot be brushed aside. But, as always, those opposed to these products, and vapes in general, are muddying the waters with issues to do with illicit products, underage use and consumer safety: important issues but ones that should be dealt with separately. 

But the good news is that disposing of used single-use vapes is possible in a reasonably environmentally friendly manner. On July 17, Waste Experts launched a report, The Challenges of Recycling Single-Use Vapes, in which it said, in part, that two products it tested, a widely available plastic and aluminium vape and a new cardboard-based entry, both demonstrated high levels of recyclability. The company, which has been operating in the environmental services sector for more than 22 years, also said that, when collected and sent to an Approved Authorized Treatment Facility, both products were able to meet the U.K. Recycling and Recovery Targets under Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulations.

The Waste Experts report was commissioned by ANDS, which is a leading brand owner and supplier of alternative nicotine-delivery products in the Middle East and which, as ANDS Globe U.K., is currently entering the U.K. market for single-use vapes with SLIX, a product whose outer casing of high-grade card screams recyclable.

Indeed, in a press note introducing SLIX, which was one of the brands tested by Waste Experts, ANDS said this product was 99 percent recyclable and recoverable and that the company was on course to increase this level of recyclability and recoverability by the end of this year. As I understand it, the technology underpinning such products is advancing at speed with the elimination of wires and, importantly, with battery design improvements.

Other brand owners also have been focusing on the environmental credentials of their products and even on the way in which used products are collected for recycling. At the same time, waste treatment companies are innovating the methods they employ in handling products, including single-use vapes, and are providing recyclability feedback loops to assist vape manufacturers and brand owners in the choice of materials and product designs that better meet their environmental aspirations.

A Ways to Go

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to give the impression that the vape industry has cracked the environment issue, especially in respect of single-use products. This is the final sentence of the Executive Summary of the Waste Experts report: “So whilst single-use vapes have a short lifespan and are not environmentally the best option, when collected and treated through authorized routes, the materials can be recycled and recovered correctly.”

With some justification, those calling for a ban on single-use vapes would no doubt see this sentence as admitting that the collection and processing of used products is simply a way of treating the symptoms of the problem. I assume they would also argue that the sentence suggests that only a ban could treat the cause of the problem.

Those promoting a ban might also look askance at the environmental claims in respect of processing used single-use vapes. The recycling and recovery categories talked about largely in respect of such products are only in third and fourth place on the five-place waste hierarchy described in the Waste Experts report: prevention (using less material and making the product last longer), reuse (reusing products with minor refurbishments or repairs), recycling (converting waste materials into new products), recovery (recovering energy through incineration, gasification or anaerobic digestion) and disposal (landfill and incineration without recovery).

The other point that those calling for a ban are bound to pick up on is the “when collected” qualification in the Waste Energy executive summary. As I understand it, only a tiny percentage of single-use vapes are disposed of properly, with most going to landfill. This should come as no surprise, however. Apparently, many distributors and retailers of small consumer electronics are still not aware of their obligations under WEEE even though it has been in force for more than 15 years.

Additionally, most vapers have been recruited from the ranks of smokers, and a significant number of smokers have over the years shown scant regard for the environment. Cigarette-butt litter has had a constant presence on our streets and in our waterways for decades, and no amount of appeals to consumers seem to have convinced them of the need to dispose of butts responsibly.

Multiuse Products

This might be overly pessimistic because there clearly are differences between cigarette butts and used single-use vapes and, in respect of the latter, it would presumably be much easier, for instance, to introduce deposit and return schemes. But I cannot help being concerned that there are few differences between cigarette and vape consumers, or between those consumers and most people, who seem to be unwilling to make modest changes to their habits even in the face of an existential climate crisis.

Even some leading lights in the vape industry are not necessarily opposed to a ban on single-use vapes. Interviewed on BBC radio news, Doug Mutter, the chief executive of VPZ, a leading vape retailer and manufacturer of vape liquids, expressed some interesting ideas about how to address the issues surrounding single-use vapes and, in particular, explained how his company was working successfully to transition consumers from single-use to multiuse products. But elsewhere, he has been quoted as saying that he would not oppose a ban provided it did not lead to a black market—or, presumably, did not stoke the black market already in operation.

Muddying the Debate

This was a canny remark that, to my way of thinking, pointed up more than one issue. The first is that government austerity measures over the past 13 years have reduced the U.K.’s ability to control the influx and sale of illicit products, something that has created an unlevel playing field on which some vape companies are paying to join the producer compliance schemes required under WEEE provisions while others are not.

But it also points up another issue: the fact that the debate about the impact of single-use vapes on the environment is constantly muddied with talk about illicit products and sales to young people, both of which are policing issues, not environment issues. Some of the stories currently doing the rounds in the media, even in those media outlets many would consider reliable, are awash with what seems to be deliberately misleading information about vaping among young people.

Partly as a result of such stories, I assume, pressure is building behind a ban on single-use vapes by the U.K. government, and that pressure could build quickly. These are dangerous times for the industry because the ruling Conservative Party in the U.K. is struggling with its popularity ratings ahead of a general election next year; so, with vaping a minority sport, the party and government might see some electoral benefit in acquiescing to such a ban, especially since the government’s overall environmental focus has been dimmed in recent times because it seems to take the climate crisis as a long-term problem that can be addressed down the road.

Single-use vapes are particularly vulnerable to a ban because, while they are largely the same as multiuse vapes in that they contain difficult-to-handle nicotine and batteries, their volumes, and potential volumes, make them an easy target. While those opposed to vaping in general find themselves on difficult ground when faced with the argument that vaping is providing for many people a route out of the highly risky smoking habit, they probably feel they are on firmer ground when it comes to single-use products. They might concede that vapes serve a useful purpose but question the need for single-use products, and they are unlikely to be persuaded by arguments about the latter providing a more cost-effective and convenient option for consumers than other products.

Nevertheless, ANDS deserves credit for commissioning the Waste Experts report, which was launched at an event held in the Terrace Pavilion of the U.K.’s Houses of Parliament and was hosted by the Conservative Member of Parliament Mark Pawsey, who, as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Vaping, has been active during many years in trying to encourage a measured debate around vaping and its benefits.

The trouble is that the vaping debate seems to have no ending. It keeps going round and round, like the London Eye ferris wheel that can be seen from the Terrace Pavilion. The Waste Experts report seems to bring closure to one part of the debate, but it is technical stuff and so not likely, in my view, to shift the needle of public opinion.

Only one thing will shift that needle, and that is ensuring the ground is not littered with carelessly discarded single-use vapes, whatever that takes. The public is generally steeped in superficiality; it values the look of the environment over its health. And, by the way, if the aim is to include consumers in this cleanup, it would be a good idea, I think, to warn of the actual dangers posed by batteries but not to over-egg the dangers. Consumers are not going to spend much time wandering around looking for official disposal points if they have been panicked into thinking that the product in their back pocket is liable to explode or catch fire.