If you walk down any urban street in Scotland it will probably not be long before you see a brightly-coloured, discarded single-use vaping tube lying in a gutter. A group of charities is calling for them to be banned, but what is perhaps most surprising is that they were ever allowed on to the market in the first place.
Single-use vapes are chucked away at the rate of 1.3 million a week in the UK, with very few reaching any kind of recycling process, and many now turning up as litter on beaches. They are made of plastic and contain lithium batteries which could be recharged many times over instead of just being used for just one power cycle. Enough lithium is thrown away in those vapes every year to build the batteries for 1,200 electric cars. They also contain toxic nicotine.
You wonder how these throw-away products ever came to market. Public concerns about plastic waste is high. Some single-use plastic items like plastic plates, cutlery, food boxes and cups are on their way to being banned this year. There is already a law about collecting electronic waste for recycling. And lithium is a critical material, needed for batteries in everything from phones to electric vehicles.
It’s not as if vaping devices have to be disposable, with rechargeable and refillable versions easily available. So disposable vapes are a completely unnecessary product, yet selling them has become a massive business in the UK.
Last week a group of 18 environment, health and youth charities called on the UK Government to ban single-use vaping products. Health charities are interested because many under-18s use vapes, drawing them into nicotine addiction. More than half of them are using disposable vapes. The Scottish Government has consulted on restricting advertising of vapes, to try to cut down their appeal to children, but with vape shops more common than shoe shops and vapes next to the till in almost every newsagent, this can only have limited success.
Having lithium batteries in the general waste stream can be a big problem. The massive fire at the Altens waste plant in Aberdeen in July took five days to put out and was likely caused by a lithium battery in a small electrical device such as a vape.
The demand for lithium is expected to grow tenfold by 2040 and the more we waste the more needs to be mined. The largest producer of lithium is Australia but much of the world’s reserves are in an area that spans Argentina, Bolivia and Chile where there are already conflicts between the local community and mining companies, particularly over water use.
The Republic of Ireland is about to consult on banning single-use vapes because of littering and the waste of materials.
Disposable vapes are a very visible example of our wasteful, throwaway society. Whether you care about plastic waste, proper use of scarce lithium, the addiction danger to children, litter or even your local waste plant burning down, they should never have been allowed on to the market in the first place. Let’s correct that mistake and ban them.
A version of this blog appeared in the Scotsman newspaper on 1st December 2022.