The number of single-use vapes thrown away in the UK has almost quadrupled within a single year to 5 million per week, according to Material Focus. The non-profit organisation, which promotes the recycling of electrical appliances, estimated that the disposable e-cigarettes thrown away in the UK each year contained enough lithium for 5,000 electric vehicle batteries.
The findings, which were published early this month, are based on a representative survey performed by the market research firm Yougov and revealed substantial problems with the handling of single-use vapes ("disposables"). For instance, the survey found that only around one in six users turned in disposable vapes at collection points at shops or local recycling centres. Almost three quarters of those surveyed said that they put their vapes in the household waste bin. Three per cent of users admitted to dropping their single-use vapes on the ground, with 1 per cent even flushing them down the toilet after use. The number of young people involved in vape littering was higher than in the general population at 8 per cent. What’s more, around a third of 16-18year-olds responding to the survey threw vapes away at their place of education or work or stored them in a cupboard at home, Material Focus added.
"Since we last published our research, the problem with single-use vapes has gotten further out of control. Single-use vapes are a strong contender for being the most environmentally wasteful, damaging and dangerous consumer product ever made. And still very few producers and retailers comply with environmental regulations and haven’t put recycling drop-off points and systems in place," Scott Butler, the organisation’s executive director, said, commenting on the latest findings. All too often, this meant that local authorities were left facing the major operational and financial problems associated with the UK’s fastest-growing and most hazardous waste stream.
Material Focus urged manufacturers to take action to increase the take-back and recycling of vapes and fund a communications campaign to raise public awareness. In particular, consumers should be made aware of ways to recycle vape pens. The organisation also called for more collection points to be set up for single-use e-cigarettes in shops, parks, schools, colleges and public places.
Manufacturers plan to add more collection points in retail locations
A spokesperson for Elfbar, the UK’s most popular disposable vape brand, told the BBC that the company was "fully committed to increasing rates of recycling". The firm was working to put thousands of recycling points in place in retail outlets and increase the recyclability of its products.
John Dunne, Director General of the UK Vaping Industry Association, said that the industry had grown at such a fast pace that it had been hard to keep up with. However, many independent vape shops now had recycling options available.
E-cigarette bans discussed throughout Europe
A UK government spokesperson told the BBC, “The government is very concerned about the environmental impacts of disposable vapes and will shortly publish a response to its call for evidence on vaping, which closed in June." The Scottish Government is also considering banning disposable vapes.
At the start of September, the North London Waste Authority added its voice to the chorus calling for a ban on the sale and manufacture of single-use vapes. The waste authority, which serves more than 2 million residents in seven London boroughs, estimates that around 210,000 e-cigarettes a month, or half of all disposable e-cigarettes purchased within the waste authority area, wind up either in bins or are littered.
In July, The Local Government Association, which represents councils in England and Wales, also called for a ban by 2024, partly due to problems that they can cause during waste disposal.
On 3 September, French prime minister Elisabeth Borne said in a radio interview with broadcaster RTL that a national ban on disposable vapes, or "puffs" as they are known in France, was in the works. The motivation behind the market restriction was concern for the health of young people, and not the environmental impacts. The ban is to be part of a forthcoming anti-smoking plan.
A ban was also discussed in Germany, at least at the start of the year. In March, the Federal Council called upon the German Government to advocate for rules to this effect at the national and EU levels. German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke had previously openly advocated an EU-wide ban on single-use vapes via the EU Ecodesign Directive and the Single Use Plastic Directive. However, no progress on this matter has been made since then.
In January, the European Commission said, in response to a parliamentary question, that it had no plans to take action on vapes in the near future.
However, unless single-use vapes are redesigned, the new EU Battery Regulation will result in a de facto ban for the European internal market. Article 11 of the legislation requires that batteries be easily removable and replaceable by the consumer. This provision becomes binding in February 2027.