Disposable vapes – a challenge to the recycling sector

9th May 2022


Disclaimer: Nicotine is a highly addictive substance. Guidance on how to stop smoking is available from the NHS here. The health impacts of vapes, and the comparative health effects of vapes versus tobacco smoking, are still in the early stages of research.

The transition to a net zero economy, according to the former US president Barack Obama, requires an ‘all of the above’ approach. Part of this is increased reliance on lithium batteries, enabling the electrification of consumer goods like cars, bicycles and scooters. The relatively recent popularity of lithium batteries, which is partly due to their flexibility in applications, has extended to reusable and disposable vapes or e-cigarettes.

According to Martin Jackson, a battery metals analyst at CRU, “all battery-grade lithium compounds are produced for less than $15/kg, whereas the current spot price is around $75 to $80/kg, indicating that demand is far outstripping supply. The gap between supply and demand shows that new sources of lithium, such as via recycling streams, will only become more attractive for lithium supply chain actors.”

Increasing popularity of disposable vapes

Vaping has climbed substantially in popularity in the UK over the past few years, with initial users buying vapes as a way of quitting smoking, or as a potentially less harmful way to consume nicotine. When I spoke with Liam Humberstone, the technical director at Totally Wicked – a vape company, he said “I’ve noticed a switch from people using vapes as a way to quit a long-term tobacco smoking habit, to people choosing to vape who were more likely to otherwise be occasional or “social” smokers. This trend lined up with two new entrants to the UK vape market – first Geek Bar, and then Elf Bar.”

According to the ONS, there has been a significant increase in the number of people in Great Britain using vapes, rising from just under 4 percent in 2014 to just over 6 percent in 2020.

Figure 1 A chart from the ONS showing the number of people who vape, from 2014 to 2020
Figure 1 A chart from the ONS showing the number of people who vape, from 2014 to 2020

Before 2021, the only widely available disposable vapes were ‘cigarette-like’ e-cigarettes which had generally been produced by the big tobacco companies and were more targeted at the over 35 age range. These newer disposable vape brands and their lookalikes are designed in a far more aesthetically appealing way, making them look more ‘trendy’ and therefore more attractive to the 18-30 age range.

Inside a disposable vape, beyond the casing which can be metal and/or plastic, you will find some basic elements. These will be a mouthpiece, cotton or synthetic fibre which holds around 2ml of e-liquid, often including nicotine, a heating coil, a lithium battery, a sensor to detect airflow to initiate the heating coil, and an LED light to show that the battery is discharging to heat the coil. Most disposable vapes are not designed to be taken apart easily.

Disposable vapes in waste and recycling streams

The obvious place to put a used disposable vape if you’re out and about is into a public bin. This presents a multitude of risks to workers who come into contact with it through the waste and recycling stream. The biggest risk is arguably from the lithium battery in the vape. “If a lithium battery is compromised in transit and is pierced, it may spontaneously ignite like a firework,” as Stuart Hayward-Higham, Technical Development Director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, a leading recycling firm in the UK and an IEMA corporate partner, put it. If you search on YouTube, you can find lots of instances of lithium batteries looking like they explode on conveyor belts in recycling facilities. According to a spokesperson from the Health and Safety Executive - the government body responsible for safety in the workplace - regarding monitoring of the frequency of these incidents, “HSE doesn’t collect this information”.

In addition to the risk posed by lithium batteries, if the unused e-liquid inside the disposable vape contains nicotine, it is classified as a biocide – which means it can be harmful to living organisms. This means there are certain regulations attached to the storage, transit and processing of products which contain waste e-liquid. The third key risk is hygiene. Disposable vapes will have been in people’s mouths and as we know from our experience of the pandemic, viruses and bacteria can be spread relatively easily.

For those who use disposable vapes and would like to dispose of them in an environmentally friendly way, unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. There’s currently no large-scale disposable vape recycling scheme in the UK, and it will be hit and miss if you take one to a local refuse centre, even with battery recycling provision. This is partly because the types of disposable vapes which have entered the UK market within the past year or so are new, and because there’s next to no standardization when it comes to the type of small lithium batteries used in vapes.

Vice ran a story in February this year (2022) How to dispose of your not-so-disposable vapes. They similarly reported on how difficult this is to achieve and found that a mechatronics engineer in Australia had posted on Instagram offering to dismantle and recycle consumers disposable vapes, but soon got overwhelmed with requests and noted that under Australia Post rules, one can only send one disposable vape per parcel. The article goes on to show how consumers can dismantle disposable vapes to get the battery out – this is a dangerous approach because, as stated above, lithium batteries if pierced can spontaneously combust.

There is some ongoing innovation in the design of disposable vapes. One design which grabbed headlines recently is the QBAR by a company called Riot E-Liquid. The QBAR website features a slick video which shows how to easily, safely dismantle the disposable vape, and to then presumably take the lithium battery to a battery recycler. Conversely, other brands seem to be going in the opposite direction and are making their disposable vapes even more difficult to deconstruct.

None of the vape, recycling, or lithium experts I spoke to had heard of any commercial-scale operation to recycle disposable vapes. In response to questions from me, a spokesperson from the HSE said that “a couple of small scale [lithium ion battery recycling] plants are planned for the UK, coming on stream in 2023 and 2024 respectively”, which are being developed by Glencore and Veolia, and that “Their likely rationale – this will be a growing market and therefore presents a business opportunity.”

What’s next for disposable vape recycling?

We may be some distance from being able to simply put used disposable vapes into general household or public recycling bins, but ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ offers a glimmer of hope. Under existing battery regulations, many retailers selling batteries are required to provide for ‘free take back’ of waste portable batteries at their premises. Producers are then responsible for ensuring these batteries are appropriately treated and recycled. It is unclear whether this extends to products which contain batteries, like disposable vapes. Some vape companies have already asked consumers to give back their used disposable vapes. An issue with this is the lack of widely available recyclers in the UK who are able to take them from vape shops to recycling facilities.

The government is currently reviewing Extended Producer Responsibility rules relating to waste electronics. A Defra spokesperson said “Raw materials are finite, and each battery thrown away and lost to the system is a waste of valuable resources. That is why we are reviewing the existing producer responsibility approach for batteries, which will make it easier for people to recycle these items, driving up recycling rates.”

It remains to be seen whether this will be something which is confronted head on by the vape companies themselves, market forces, litigation, or by government action.

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