youwalk down any busy street and you’re sure to find dozens of candy-colored plastic cylinders scattered across the ground. Millions of these disposable vaporizers are now thrown away every month in the UK. And hidden inside each one is a lithium battery, made of a crucial material for the transition to renewable energy.
Last month, I found myself shopping for an Elf Bar Disposable Vaporizer on a night out. I try not to get into the habit of vaping, but it feels too easy to pick one up when they’re conspicuously displayed next to the gum at every corner store. For weeks the vaporizer sat next to my wastebasket. I knew I had to recycle it, but how do you actually go about doing it? I soon found myself falling down a rabbit hole filled with cranberry smoke.
There was no hint on the vaporizer’s packaging on how to properly dispose of it. A tiny white symbol of a crossed-out bin is the only indication that the device should not be placed with the rest of the rubbish. So perhaps it’s not surprising that more than half of disposable vapes bought in the UK are simply thrown away, according to research from Material Focus, a non-profit organization that recycles.
A Google search led me to the website of the Recycle your Electricals campaign, which recommends removing the battery from your vaporizer (if you can) and recycling the parts separately, or returning the entire device to a retailer or recycling point in the city. local authority. Easy, I thought. But at a local supermarket, none of the staff were aware of a take-back scheme to recycle vapes, even though retailers selling £100,000 worth are required to provide this service. Instead, they pointed me towards the battery recycling bin in the corner of the store.
Back at home and armed with two pairs of scissors and some questionable advice from YouTube, I finally managed to pry the bottom of the vaporizer off and take out the battery. In hindsight, this was not the best idea as lithium batteries can cause fires if accidentally punctured. (I found out later that groups like Material Focus don’t recommend dismantling single-use vaporizers.)
When I finally made it back to the supermarket, I found the battery recycling bin full of intact vapes. Clearly, there is a lot of confusion about how to properly dispose of these devices. I wished I had avoided the hassle of removing the batteries and just walked half an hour to the nearest small electrical recycling center. But realistically, how many people are going to make the same trip for something advertised as “disposable”?
Currently, 1.3 million single-use vaporizers are thrown away in the UK every week, according to recycling group Material Focus. When disposed of, they can leach dangerous metals, battery acid, and nicotine into the environment. Additionally, each vape contains an average of 0.15g of lithium, which is equivalent to 10 tonnes of waste over a year in the UK, enough to make around 1,200 electric car batteries. Producing this metal is an environmentally costly process that uses large amounts of energy and water. At a time when we rely on lithium and the batteries it powers to fuel the transition to clean energy, it seems ridiculous to throw away tons of it with single-use vapors.
So what should be done? Scott Butler, CEO of Material Focus, says all retailers that sell vaporizers should have in-store drop-off points (per existing regulations) and also calls for collection points in public areas near parks, nightclubs and bars. He adds that “the industry should stop calling them disposable – all vapes can be recycled if they’re collected.”
But I am inclined to agree with the activists who believe that a full ban is the only real solution. Laura Young, a PhD student and climate campaigner, collected one vape per minute during a walk in her hometown of Dundee and warns we already have a “failed record” of recycling staples like bottles and cans. So what chance do we have with complicated items like vaporizers? She notes that a ban would still allow people to use more cost-effective reusable vaporizers.
Certainly, momentum is building on this issue. Earlier this year, Conservative MP Caroline Johnson introduced a Private Members’ Bill to ban the sale of disposable e-cigarettes. Meanwhile, the Scottish government commissioned an urgent review of the environmental impact of disposable vapes and 10 councils agreed to write to Holyrood in support of a ban. Could the UK follow Australia, which this week announced plans to ban all disposable vapes as part of a major crackdown?
Meanwhile, two disposable vapes are thrown away every second in the UK. My frustrating mission of trying to recycle one has certainly put me off buying another. But how many others really realize what they’re throwing away?