We live in a fast changing world where legislation can become out of date at alarming speed. Take the laws that govern the internet, which are in many ways derived from a short clause in a telecommunications bill passed in the US in 1996. The 26 words that allegedly shaped the way the internet is governed are in Section 230 of the bill. Meant to protect early websites that had no control over what their users posted, they have since absolved social media giants from responsibility for anything published on their platforms, even radical content encouraging terrorism or glamourising suicide, and even when the companies’ algorithms are actively pushing this content towards impressionable viewers.
All that may be about to change, with a case before the US Supreme Court, Gonzalez vs Google, brought by the family of a victim of the Islamic State attacks in Paris in 2015. The US case follows a recent UK coroner’s ruling that Facebook and Instagram posts relating to suicide and self harm contributed to the death of 14 year old Molly Russell. Finally, after untold harm caused by unfit regulations, meaningful change may be on the way.
Regulatory anachronism affects the environment too
This type of problem is not confined to the world of rapidly evolving media. There are plenty of environmental examples too, including chemicals regulation. The sheer number of substances in use across the world have proved tricky to keep up with. Over 21,000 individual chemicals have been registered in the EU but estimates suggest ten times more, over 200,000 chemicals, could be in use, which is likely to be similar to the UK. Some of these are potentially hazardous on their own or when mixed with other substances in what’s known as the ‘cocktail effect’. When this is realised after the cat is out of the bag, regulators are left scrambling to catch up.
Notoriously, this is the case with per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). This family of more than 4,500 so-called ‘forever chemicals’, which don’t occur or degrade in nature, are linked to birth defects, cancer, kidney disease and liver problems. Although some have been phased out, many more are still used in everything from waterproof clothing to food packaging and non-stick frying pans. Persistent in our environment, they are now found in rainwater and every umbilical cord blood sample studied over the past five years.
Evidence of the persistency and toxicity of these chemicals is as strong as it is terrifying. Yet regulators have been slow to respond. After years of criticism for acting too slowly and regulating chemicals one by one, the EU announced earlier this year a Restrictions roadmap, with the intention of banning thousands of hazardous chemicals – including PFAS – by 2030. The UK’s nascent chemicals regulatory regime, UK REACH, is much further behind this with only intentions to take action at some point on PFAS. Last year, one of the first things the new regime did was begin a regulatory management options analysis (RMOA) for the PFAS family. The results of the initial call for evidence, originally due this summer, are still to be published, and it is likely to be years before any meaningful action. And, as the regulators procrastinate, the hazards build up.
It doesn’t have to be this way
But it isn’t inevitable that regulators have to chase harms and clean up long after the fact. This is undoubtedly true for the fast growing and entirely unnecessary pollution caused by disposable vapes. Disposable e-cigarettes have exploded in popularity and, according to research by Material Focus, at least 1.3 million are now being thrown away every week. That’s two every second. As their use rises, so is the problem of the litter they’re causing, with litter collection organisations reportedly seeing more and more of them. This is problematic, not only because they’re made of plastic which, as we know, is hazardous to the environment and wildlife, but also because they contain nicotine and batteries which are also hazardous. The batteries also contain precious metals, such as lithium, critical for powering our green transition, which is simply going to waste in these devices. In fact, Material Focus estimates that lithium in the disposable vapes being thrown away each year could be used instead to power 12,000 electric vehicles, or possibly a staggering 1,200,000 electric bikes.
Disposable vapes are especially popular among young people, susceptible to their marketing and flavours. This has led China, where many vapes are made, to crack down on the industry and ban fruit flavoured vapes from being sold there. But they are still exporting them to the UK, contributing to a worrying trend: since 2021 the percentage of 11 to 17 year old vapers using disposables, rather than reusables, has skyrocketed from 7.7 per cent to 52 per cent according to Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). And, while reusable vapes were developed as a tool to quit smoking, the rise in their use among young people who never smoked before is concerning. Multiple health professionals warn they could be creating a whole new generation hooked on nicotine, with an increased risk of chronic lung diseases.
Government has the power to ban damaging disposables
That’s why, along with other environmental leaders, including the Marine Conservation Society and Wildlife and Countryside Link, and experts in the world of health, including ASH Scotland and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, we’re today calling for single use vapes to be banned.
The good news is that the regulators don’t have to play catch up on this one. Legislation to prevent this avoidable environmental and health disaster already exists. The government has the power to ban ‘injurious substances’ that cause “pollution of the environment or harm to human health” and has used it to get rid of the likes of single use plastic straws and cotton buds. Just over a year ago, it consulted on using these powers more widely to tackle commonly littered and problematic plastic. We’re still waiting on the outcome of that call for evidence and single use vapes weren’t officially included. But it’s become clear over the past year that that oversight must now be addressed.
Rather than waiting to clean up serious harm to our environment, economy and children’s health from these devices, the government can and should get ahead now with regulation to avoid the inevitable costs later.