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Environmental benefits of UK's vape ban

Targetting legislation at products which pollute the environment advances sustainability goals, writes Alice Bullard.

By Alice Bullard, Fourth year, MSci Biological Sciences

The ban on selling disposable vapes in the UK, announced in late January 2024, is expected to improve public health, while also reducing plastic and chemical pollution.

In the UK it is estimated that around 4.5 million people regularly use disposable vapes, also known as e-cigarettes. These handheld electrical devices are available in tempting flavours and enticing colours, encouraging use by underage individuals despite sale to children being illegal.

Disposable vapes are also more affordable than rechargeable alternatives, increasing their appeal to young people. Just under 10 per cent of 11–15-year-olds use vapes regularly, a number that has tripled over the past 3 years according to the Office for National Statistics. In response to this issue, a press release given on 29 January 2024 by the UK government detailed the ban of disposable vapes to lessen the increase of adolescent vaping and reduce undesirable health effects.  

The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said: 'One of the most worrying trends at the moment is the rise in vaping among children, and so we must act before it becomes endemic. The long-term impacts of vaping are unknown and the nicotine within them can be highly addictive, so while vaping can be a useful tool to help smokers quit, marketing vapes to children is not acceptable. '

We can also expect to see environmental benefits of the ban along with benefits to health. Disposable vapes primarily harm the environment through plastic pollution after improper disposal. Though vapes can often be returned to the retailer for disposal or recycled as their constituent parts – this is not a simple or accessible disposal method for most.

It is estimated that a staggering five million disposable vapes are thrown away weekly in the UK, a weekly increase of 25 per cent compared to last year. They are often recycled incorrectly, put into landfill, or discarded in public places. Plastic pollution harms wildlife after ingestion, releases harmful chemicals in soil and water, and aids the movement of other pollutants across around the world’s waterways. 

Disposable vapes are not refillable or rechargeable, meaning they contain a single-use lithium battery. Disposal of vapes in domestic black bins has been seen to cause chaos through the spontaneous ignition of batteries in waste lorries and landfill sites, endangering waste-workers’ lives and the environment.

On top of this, harmful chemicals are released from vapes such as heavy metals and acids when they are improperly disposed of that go on to contaminate soil and water sources – eventually leading back to human consumption.

Chief Executive of environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy, Allison Ogden-Newton OBE, said:  'Disposable vape litter has doubled in the past two years alone and last year more than 16 per cent of the sites we surveyed were blighted by these single-use items, posing a significant risk to wildlife and polluting our streets, parks and beaches. An estimated 260 million are thrown away in this country every year, wasting precious scarce resources, including lithium.'

Environmental Scientist Laura Young began the ‘Ban Disposable Vapes’ campaign in September 2022 with the hope of reducing waste caused by improper disposal of these devices. Laura spread awareness of the environmental urgency of this issue through social media and celebrated success when the ban was announced. Her interest in the issue was sparked by noticing the increase in discarded vapes whilst walking in her local area.

Increasingly more peer-reviewed research continues to be carried out into the effects of disposable vapes on the environment. A research article published in 2022, 'From Smoking to Vaping: a New Environmental Threat', compared the environmental footprints of combustible cigarettes compared to vapes. The paper highlights a fascinating transfer from traditional smoking that produced plastic pollution through cigarette butts, to a 'trendier' form of smoking that also pollutes the environment with plastic and chemicals.  

Implementing targeted legislation to regulate environmentally harmful retail items is undeniably effective for advancing national sustainability goals. However, such measures may inadvertently impact individuals who rely on disposable vapes as a smoking cessation tool. 

Featured image: Flickr / Vaping360

What do you think about the UK’s disposable vape ban?