29 March 2023

Going up in smoke – how bad is vaping for the environment?


Another day, another ban. Now the Government is taking aim at the most effective anti-smoking tool ever devised – disposable vapes. Alongside claiming that adults would not be so childish as to enjoy the taste of cola, fruits, or mint, the Government have highlighted the environmental concerns of disposable vapes. This may be a more valid concern than the phoney health argument. However, the industry has already begun innovating their way out of this quagmire.

To go back to basics, disposable vapes use lithium-ion batteries to power a metal coil, which heats a tank of glycerine, nicotine, and flavouring (all of which are non-carcinogenic). Shrouded in plastic, usually polycarbonate, when the tank is exhausted, the vape is usually thrown away, at a rate of two a second, into general waste or simply littered.

This does indeed entail some serious environmental problems.

Firstly, lithium-ion batteries contain cobalt, nickel, and manganese, which are poisonous if they make their way into soil or groundwater. That’s to say nothing of the carbon and mineral-intensive production of the tens of millions of batteries produced each year for the vaping industry.  Fortunately, that same industry has come up with a solution for the improper disposal of batteries. The Blo-Bar Disposable Vape Recycling Scheme allows users to send in 10 used vapes for proper recycling, and receive one for free. Likewise, Riot E-Liquids hosts an interactive map to help users find recycling centres around their towns and cities.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, vaping is still far more environmentally friendly than smoking. Not only do cigarettes release 7,000 chemicals when they are burned, but have you ever thought about what happens to the discarded butts you see scattered across our pavements? When in contact with water, or ground into the dirt by cars and foot-traffic, those same chemicals, which contain heavy metals such as aluminium, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, and zinc, enter the environment. It goes without saying that these are terrible for the health of our soils and rivers. This includes the single-use plastics found in the filters of cigarette butts – industry has yet to integrate the dozens of biodegradable plastic filters and papers into their main product lines. With 18.5 billion butts disposed of every day, mostly discarded into the street, there’s every reason to be concerned about their impact on the planet.

The argument, then, comes down to the trade-off. So long as people want nicotine, which is up to them, they will either smoke or vape or use pouches; as the Khan Review has highlighted, safer forms of nicotine consumption are the preference for public health. It is down to proper regulations, which reward innovative recycling and disposal methods and punish needlessly polluting practices. For both the health of the British people, and the health of the planet, the Government should back vaping and ensure the industry has a sustainable future. 

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Maxwell Marlow is Director of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.