Vaping’s dirty secret: the UK’s growing e-waste problem

Posted on 17 May 2024 by The Manufacturer

The popularity of disposable vapes has risen significantly in recent years. In the UK, 31% of people who vape use single-use devices. This is a staggering increase of 106% year-on-year. This is creating worrying levels of electronic waste (commonly referred to as e-waste. James Rigg, CEO of electronic contract manufacturer, Trojan Electronics, explains.

The use of disposable vapes has risen particularly quickly among younger adults with over half (57%) of users aged between 18-24 opting for disposable devices. And it’s no surprise; they are widely available, cheap and attractive to young people due to their colourful branding and sweet flavours. As well as being an alternative to smoking they have attracted a new group of consumers that never previously smoked.

Alongside their impact on health, disposable vapes have also had a considerable impact on the environment. While the UK government has proposed a tightening of the rules around their use, we are yet to see any policy introduced to reduce the damage they are doing to the environment. In the absence of this it’s up to industry to collectively focus on reducing their environmental impact.

As disposable vapes aren’t commonly recycled, they go straight to landfills or are incinerated, producing e-waste and greenhouse gas emissions. An estimated 360 million disposable vapes a year are being sold in the UK. Vapes on average weigh 45g, which could equate to around 16 billion kilograms of waste annually if none are recycled. To illustrate the impact, this weight is equivalent to that of 64 blue whales.

When vapes are sent to landfill to be crushed or incinerated, heavy metals can leach into the soil and contaminate groundwater, posing serious health risks to humans and wildlife

The UK’s e-waste problem

E-waste is a rapidly growing global problem, but the UK is amongst the worst offenders. As the second highest generator of e-waste per capita in the world, the UK is estimated to have produced 46,557 tonnes of e-waste through 2023 and is on track to overtake Norway in the rankings to become the biggest generator this year.

Currently, the UK’s electronics habits are not maximising profitability for manufacturers or sustainability. A move towards circularity that focuses on recycling, repairs and refurbishment would provide a greater opportunity for businesses to benefit financially and consumers to enjoy their electronics for longer; as well as reducing the impact consumer electronics have on the environment.

Hazardous waste

However, it’s not just the scale of e-waste that is the concern, it’s the materials inside it too. The batteries inside vapes contain electronic components with heavy metals including lead, cadmium and mercury. These metals are toxic and can accumulate in the environment. When vapes are sent to landfill to be crushed or incinerated, heavy metals can leach into the soil and contaminate groundwater, posing serious health risks to humans and wildlife.

The lithium in batteries is also highly flammable. If they are punctured or exposed to heat, they can cause dangerous landfill fires. New figures from the ‘Stop Battery Fires Campaign’ from Recycle your Electricals and the National Fire Chiefs Council, show that there have been over 1,200 battery fires in bin lorries and at waste sites in the UK over the past 12 months. This is an increase of 71% compared to 2022. These fires are releasing hazardous chemicals into the environment, contributing to air pollution levels and potentially harming the health of those living nearby.

How can we increase vape recycling?

By law, shops that sell vapes must take them back for recycling, however, this is a service that costs money to provide, therefore many retailers don’t. According to research by Material Focus, the potential annual cost of recycling vapes would be £200m, a cost that the recycling campaign group says is not being met by producers, importers or retailers.

For disposable vape manufacturers, encouraging people to recycle electronics is certainly no easy task and is an issue across the industry. It requires collaboration between stakeholders including better design choices in design and manufacturing, education for consumers, widely available recycling points and government buy-in. Although consumers have a role to play in changing their purchase, usage and disposal behaviours, it is manufacturers that can take the first step.

Designing for sustainability

Embedding circularity in the DNA of vapes is key to limiting the amount of e-waste they produce. This is where designers and manufacturers play a crucial role. As an industry, electronics manufacturers need to move away from the existing practice of designing devices for planned obsolescence. This strategy means many electronics are designed for a short life span as they can’t be easily repaired or refurbished. It encourages ‘fast consumer electronics’ whereby people are encouraged to rebuy items or upgrade them as soon as a fault occurs.

In the case of vapes, they should be designed so the batteries can be accessed for easy replacement. Currently, they are designed as one unit meaning the batteries can’t be separated and replaced without destroying the rest of the device. Modular design has been rising in popularity in recent years among electronics manufacturers, with some laptops and kitchen appliances now designed for easy repair. This design choice could easily be deployed to vape design.

Sustainable material sourcing is another important consideration. Renewable, biodegradable and easily recycled materials should be prioritised over single-use plastics. Biodegradable or compostable plastics for vape casings could positively impact the volume of plastic waste the UK produces.

Introducing repairability

Rechargeable batteries are another sustainable option for manufacturers. Using rechargeable lithium-ion can extend the lifespan of vapes as they can be repaired by professionals. Reconditioning a battery’s capacity through charge and discharge cycles is widely used by repair and refurbishment experts.

Battery connector repairs and cell replacements are also used to restore functionality in some rechargeable batteries. However, these processes are only possible if access to individual parts has been considered at the design stage.

Widely available recycling points

Introducing more vape recycling points requires collaboration across stakeholders. It involves identifying strategic locations that have high levels of footfall from disposable vape customers. High traffic areas in towns and city centres, where disposable vapes are commonly bought and used such as bars, convenience shops and even green spaces like parks, would be the ideal places to introduce recycling spots. As soon as customers buy their new device, they can recycle their old one. The key to success is increasing ease and visibility for customers.

Retailers and manufacturers should partner with local government agencies and waste management companies to establish the best location for the recycling points, as well as seeking their advice to ensure that collection and handling procedures are safe.

To minimise risks to people and the environment, reinforced storage containers need to be used to hold the vapes. These containers should be durable and leak-proof to prevent hazardous liquids from batteries leaking into the environment. Additionally, handling the waste should always be done by waste management professionals who are equipped with the tools and processes that maximise safety and the recyclability of devices.

The need for greater government commitment

If manufacturers are to have a meaningful impact on the levels of e-waste produced by disposable vapes, they can’t do it alone. Beyond support from retailers, consumers and waste management professionals, they also need greater buy-in from the government.

One example of increased government involvement would be offering financial incentives or subsidies to manufacturers who implement recycling programmes for disposable vapes. This could include tax relief, grants or funding to support the development of recycling infrastructure. This would make it more economically viable for manufacturers to promote and facilitate recycling.

Providing grants for research and innovation in recycling technologies would also encourage manufacturers to invest in more sustainable practices. With economic pressures continuing to impact manufacturers, sustainability unfortunately falls down the priority list. With labour, material and warehouse costs all high, having a dedicated budget for sustainable development would give them the resources to experiment with more sustainable processes.

Public awareness campaigns spearheaded by the government are also crucial to increasing engagement with electronics recycling. Investing in education for consumers on the environmental impact of disposable vapes and the importance of recycling is something we need to see in upcoming election manifestos. These campaigns should involve manufacturers to ensure that all communications are aligned, goals are established and best practice is shared.

Looking towards a more sustainable future

The environmental impact of disposable vapes is only becoming more prevalent as consumption grows. With the ban on disposables still a year away, manufacturers should be taking steps to prioritise circularity to reduce the harm vapes are having on the environment. Repair and refurbishment are critical to reducing e-waste as they extend the lifespan of electronics. If manufacturers can implement changes that allow for repairs and encourage consumers to recycle their unwanted devices, we would see some real improvements to the amount of e-waste being dumped in our landfills.

However, manufacturers can’t do it alone. They need support from retailers, consumers, waste management businesses and the government to tackle the UK’s significant e-waste problem. Each stakeholder plays a critical role and unfortunately, these responsibilities don’t appear to be priorities at present.

For more stories like this, visit our Sustainability channel.