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Thank you for smoking

There’s an electric version of anything these days, it seems. E-cigarettes and vapes are the latest trend. A friend takes his with him practically everywhere he goes; he’s always surrounded by a faint smell of vanilla, peach or chocolate. Though more stylish than traditional smokers, these consumers have sparked a whole new waste stream – that recyclers don’t yet have an answer to.

Although it’s a relatively new market, the global e-cigarette and vape sector was already worth US$ 18.1 billion (EUR 18.6 billion) in 2021 and this year is projected to reach US$ 22.4 billion. The US leads the market with sales at around US$ 7.5 billion. It’s estimated the worldwide market will grow 30% by 2030.

Let those stats sink in for a moment – on International E-waste Day. Bear in mind we’re talking about a mostly disposable waste stream that includes aroma and nicotine cartridges, a metal mouthpiece, heating element and, of course, (lithium-ion) batteries. Depending on how much you smoke or, sorry, vape, a single cartridge lasts for about 200-400 puffs.

My friends says his supply usually lasts a week or two. Then you throw away the empty cartridge and buy a new one. In some cases you have to replace the entire coil, too.

In some EU member states, it’s possible to buy litre bottles to refill your empty container. The Dutch government, however, has banned those hoping to curb nicotine addiction. In reality, this means consumers buy smaller ones more frequently so you could argue it’s not effective while generating more waste.

Generally speaking, while some people opt for reusable vapes, single-use types have gained popularity amongst young and incidental users (at festivals and parties).

Recent end-of-life numbers suggest that almost half of young users simply throw their vapes in the bin once they run out of steam – especially the cheaper ones. They cite lack of clear recycling instructions and drop-off points as the main reason.

Indeed, e-scrap and battery recyclers I know tell me vapes and e-cigarettes rarely turn up on their conveyor belts, though the volume is increasing. On the other hand, I’ve seen discarded ones lining busy city streets or on beaches many times. Perhaps extended producer responsibility schemes are the best solution?

It’s a well recorded fact that traditional cigarette butts are the world’s most commonly littered product; estimated 4.5 trillion are tossed out every year. Not only do they take 18 months to 10 years to degrade, when they ultimately do, they become microplastic.

The modern-day version of this product is not made to break down. This makes vape littering a problem on three counts; plastic pollution, chemical pollution (nicotine and other chemicals), and wasted batteries. Not least, it’s a shame to let the metals inside languish by the road-side.

Recyclers have warned that separating at source is important for this particular e-scrap waste stream. It decreases the odds of ‘hidden’ vapes cluttering landfills or, worse, causing recycling machinery to malfunction. There is also the risk of explosion. Producers insist risks are low but with lithium-ion batteries it’s best to be on your guard.

This summer, a mill operator in Bedale, UK, suffered shattered teeth after a vape blew up in his mouth. Just imagine if such a freak incident were to occur at a busy recycling yard full of workers and flammable material. The outcome could be disastrous.

‘If a vape battery is compromised in transit and is pierced, it may spontaneously ignite like a firework,’ Stuart Hayward-Higham, technical development director at SUEZ UK, says on the topic.

One can only hope that this recycling challenge will be considering when building the large-scale battery recycling facilities announced for 2023 and beyond. 

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