Every second that ticks by on a UK clock sees an additional three disposable vapes dumped onto a street, discarded into a verge, or thrown into a normal bin. The problem has grown to such an alarming level that companies are conducting research, politicians are thumping the air, and campaigners are loudly demanding action. The problem caused by casually discarded vapes leads to litter, toxins leaching into the earth, a loss of valuable materials, and an increasing risk of danger from fires in bin lorries and waste processing centres. What can vapers do to help make the situation better?
Disposable ecigs have been a revelation to smokers since they were released to the UK market. Compared with old style “cigalike” vapes in the early 2010s, the advances in technology has led to a product that delivers a consistent and rich flavour and the adoption of nicotine salt eliquids has ensured a smoother and more satisfying vape. These two missing ingredients transformed the basic product into a viable alternative to smoking, and the price point ensured that adoption was made easier for smokers looking for a cheap option to switch to.
But with convenience has come the issues.
The Zurich Municipal insurance company, itself responsible for settling fire related claims, conducted research to discover the depth of the issue being faced. From its findings, Zurich Municipal updated the figure published in a Material Focus report from 1.3 million discarded vapes a week to 2 million.
Total single-use/disposable ecig sales in the United Kingdom is currently 138 million vapes per year. Zurich Municipal discovered that an incredible 78% of these are tossed into general waste and not deposited at a recycling point. This equates to almost 108 million disposable vapes.
The research found there is a good reason for 108 million vapes being improperly: consumer confusion. Zurich says that three out of four vapers do not understand that single-use ecigs can’t be put in with regular rubbish or the household recycling bin. Because these disposables are being thrown in with the home rubbish or recycling, fires in bin lorries has leapt by an enormous 62% over the last two years. Not only does this cause a problem for the waste workers and the insurance company, but fire services also had to attend these incidents in place of other emergencies. In 2020, the fire service attended 77 bin lorry fires – by 2022, the fire service was attending 125 incidents.
The research finds that while the number of vapers in the UK has ballooned up to 4.3 million consumers, Zurich said: “consumer education has failed to keep pace. Despite the potential fire hazards posed by vapes, three out of four (70%) users are unaware the devices contain lithium batteries. A further two thirds (63%) do not realise the batteries can combust if they are damaged or crushed.”
The insurance company also found that 7% of disposable vapers said they are happy to drop their spent vapes in the street, which equates to 26,500 per day or 9.6 million single-use products every year.
What they say
Alix Bedford, a risk expert at Zurich Municipal, said: “Laid end to end, the number of disposable vapes discarded incorrectly in the UK every week would circle all 117 miles of the M25. This highlights the huge and growing scale of vape waste local authorities are grappling with.
“While councils have long battled the nuisance of cigarette litter, single use vapes are emerging as an altogether more complex and hazardous problem. Flammable lithium batteries inside vapes pose a hidden danger to waste and recycling workers and are causing costly damage and disruption to waste management services.”
Commenting on the fire services perspective, the London Assistant Commissioner for Fire Safety, Charlie Pugsley commented: “Compared to the number of fires we see caused by cigarettes, vaping could be seen as a much safer option. However, we are concerned that there are often cases where vapes have been disposed of and the batteries have short-circuited and caused a fire. Vapes must be disposed of carefully as there is a very real potential of them starting a serious fire. If you are using vaping products, it’s vital you only use the charger it was supplied with and never overcharge it.”
Consumer awareness of disposable vape recycling
From the research, Zurich wants vapers to understand that your single-use products can be processed at your local household waste recycling centres, at supermarkets, through manufacturer websites and by going in person to vape stores – as set out in the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment recycling (WEEE) regulations.
Currently, the research found, vapers dispose of their disposables in
·household waste – 41%
·street bins – 28%
·household recycling – 27%
·at work – 20%
·a local authority recycling site – 15%
·returned used vapes to retailers – 13%
*vapers may use more than one option
What can be recycled?
The most important part of a disposable vape is in the battery, a lithium-ion cell. The 0.15 grams of lithium can be reclaimed, and the rare earth metal can be used for other power supplies. It is estimated that the volume of toxic lithium dumped into landfill each year (16 tonnes) is sufficient to be used to power 2,000 new electric cars.
What can be done?
The Zurich Municipal research found that 48% of vapers wanted to see a public information campaign to raise awareness of how to recycle single-use ecigs. Further to that, 42% want to see better information produced by manufacturers to advise on disposal methods.
Alix Bedford called on the Government to add an additional section to the WEEE regulations solely for vapes and said that it needs to conduct a proper public awareness campaign.
What can I do?
1.If you can’t make it to a store or large supermarket, you can call your council to arrange local pick-up of your spent devices (not all local authorities).
2.Collect you used devices and take them to your local authority recycling centre. Staff will direct you to the bins used for the safe disposal of vapes.
3.Some recycling banks located in carparks and roadside areas have bins designated for the disposal of WEEE electrical waste.