Colourful, shiny, grabbable single-use vapes are designed as a ‘quick-fix’. But did you know that e-cigarettes introduce plastic, nicotine salts, heavy metals, lead, mercury, and flammable lithium ion batteries into waterways, soil, and to wildlife? In this piece for World Environment Day 2023, Marzia Violini considers the consequences of our throwaway culture.
Single-use e-cigarettes are the latest way to fulfil our ever-growing demand for instant gratification and a perfect example of ‘throwaway culture’. The moment the battery light flashes red, these products are discarded and forgotten. Carefree consumers simply put them in a bin or discard them as litter. Some (if they manage to navigate the complex and costly process) might ship them back to the manufacturer, but little is known about what recycling process follows.
Next time the craving kicks in, users can walk down to the local supermarket and buy a new one, in a new fruity flavour and bright colour, for the price of a sandwich. They are in endless supply, worry-free, without consequences… right?
Behind this convenience, the real truth is concealed. Manufacturing one of these small electronics requires an enormous, complex supply chain and a range of environmentally damaging processes: from production of plastics for their casings, to the extraction of metals like lithium for electronic components and the chemical production of nicotine-containing liquids. These brightly coloured, aluminium-bodied, fruity flavoured items hide a concerning reality, one that involves resource depletion, environmental degradation, and a disregard for public health.
A single-use e-cigarette contains a lithium-ion battery somewhere between 280mAh and 400mAh (for reference, the latest iPhone model has a 4323mAh battery). These batteries are technically rechargeable - or they would be, were the devices not designed to be thrown away after one use. Each battery contains on average 0.15g of lithium, making for an estimated 10 tonnes of this “critical” raw material being discarded globally per year, equivalent to the batteries in around 1,200 electric vehicles.
Discarded batteries pose a fire hazard and a huge environmental concern as they can release toxic chemicals. Similarly, toxic chemicals are contained in the flavoured liquids, which can leech into the environment and contaminate soil and waterways. The metallic finish plastic casings cannot decompose even under severe conditions, instead breaking down into microplastics.
'Disposable’ electronic products are not a new concept - transnational tobacco companies have been manufacturing single-use battery-powered products for years.
All four major tobacco companies claim to have embraced the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and produce glossy reports outlining their commitments to environmental and social responsibility. Yet they continue to produce and market products which threaten the future wellbeing of people and planet. Single use e-cigarettes contribute to a growing ecological crisis. It’s a convenience we cannot afford.
UK single use E-cigarettes in numbers (source Material Focus, 2022)
- 14 million single-use vapes bought each month
- Over 50% of single-use vapes get thrown away
- 3 million single-use vapes thrown away every week or 5.4 million per month
- 10 tonnes of lithium a year, equivalent to the batteries inside 1,200 electric vehicles.