Cardboard and paper are frequently used by brands as supposedly benign, environmentally friendly alternatives to materials considered problematic, like plastic, to calm the worries of their concerned customers. Unsuitable uses of paper and card are increasingly common, most of which I won’t go into here (though I’m looking at you, paper beer and wine bottles…). But, sure enough, as worries about disposable vapes rise, one wily company has designed one made of cardboard. The company says the vape is 99.29 per cent recyclable and recoverable, and is bragging about its green credentials. But a cardboard vape is a truly terrible idea, likely to increase environmental harm. Here’s the fact check.
Plastic was never the most environmentally damaging part
We know plastic is wreaking havoc on the environment, and there is every reason to ban disposable vapes solely on that basis. The government recently banned plastic balloon sticks and cutlery because of the hazards they pose as litter, but they are far less common than the increasingly ubiquitous vape. When did you last see a plastic balloon stick anywhere, let alone littered?
But disposable vapes are much more toxic than other single use plastic items. As well as plastic, they also contain poisonous nicotine and explosive batteries. In fact, the nicotine they contain is so damaging to the environment it has been used as a pesticide in the past. It is similar in structure to the controversial neonicitinoids, banned in recent years because they kill bees.
The batteries contain hazardous substances, too, and are a fire risk if not handled correctly. They can ignite even when they’re thrown in with the general waste. According to Material Focus, lithium ion batteries, the type found in vapes and many other electronic devices, have already caused up to 700 fires at waste sites. The increasing risk of fires in bin lorries is one of the main reasons the Local Government Association has joined the swelling ranks of environmental NGOs, doctors and MPs calling for disposable vapes to be banned.
It’s for these reasons that the type of casing used matters. One that dissolves in the open environment is the last thing we want. Ironically, the biodegradable nature of this new vape could actually speed up the leakage of its most dangerous components into the environment, much faster than a non-biodegradable plastic container would.
The perception that cardboard vapes are somehow benign and better for the environment may also encourage littering. Litter picking charities we work are already reporting alarming rises in vape litter. The Marine Conservation Society campaigner Laura Young has very effectively publicised the problem. Previous research from the UN has shown that labelling something ‘biodegradable’ might actually increase people’s inclination to litter, so if this is used as a selling point to vapers, toxic pollution from these devices could very well get worse.
‘Recyclable and recoverable’ is misleading
Although the company’s 99.29 per cent recycling figure sounds impressive, it’s actually meaningless, beyond indicating that only 0.71 per cent of the material is definitely destined for landfill or incineration without energy recovery. Saying something is ‘recoverable’ simply means energy could be recovered from it if it is burned and that headline figure gives no indication how many will be treated this way or recycled to preserve their materials.
‘Recyclable’ and ‘recycled’ are two very different things. A plastic disposable vape is technically recyclable, and there are at least two facilities in the country willing to take them. But one of the main barriers to recycling is their complexity. Even if it’s made easier to remove the batteries, as the producer of this new vape claims, care still needs to be taken to ensure the hazards are carefully managed. That means recycling will remain labour intensive and, therefore, expensive.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs previously stepped in and suggested that people should take their used vapes to household waste recycling centres, which are often far from where people live and difficult to access by public transport. Wildlife and Countryside Link estimated that a resident of Norwich would face a round trip of an hour and forty minutes to recycle a vape. Not only is this ridiculous in terms of time and energy use, it’s also an unreasonable thing to ask someone to do.
Vaping companies and retailers are legally obligated to finance the take-back of their devices but are only just waking up to their responsibilities. Even when they do provide this service, though, research by the Financial Times suggests hardly anyone will engage with it, reporting that a “…recycling scheme introduced by disposable vape manufacturer Riot Labs in 800 vape shops across the UK had less than a one per cent take-back.” This figure could obviously be improved if manufacturers lived up to their obligations and provided more take-back points. But it’s hard to believe that a child – and, bear in mind, a huge proportion of these disposables are illegally and freely used by children – will use a recycling service like this.
The only sustainable vape is a reusable one of the type that used to dominate the market. Other countries have already woken up to the health and environmental hazards of disposable vapes and are doing something about it. Bans are being considered or implemented in Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, France, the EU, and as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. And, in a move that puts Westminster to shame, China has already banned flavoured vapes to curb underage vaping.
Disposable vapes shouldn’t exist, no matter what they’re encased in. The UK government’s failure to respond to this problem and protect the health of our children and our planet is disgraceful and it will soon stand out as an international outlier through its inaction.