Are Disposable Vapes Bad For The Environment?

The Eco Experts

Walk down any street in the UK, and there’s a good chance you’ll spot a colourful plastic tube lying on the ground.

It’ll almost certainly be a disposable vape — a single-use alternative to smoking that’s booming in popularity, growing 600% since November 2021.

Any reduction in the number of people smoking tobacco is welcome news, but the damage disposable vapes are doing to the environment isn’t widely understood.

We’ve taken a look at the environmental impact of disposable vapes, whether you can recycle them, what their carbon footprint is, and whether they should be banned.

Five disposable vapes lined up, one has been taken apart to show the internal components including a lithium-ion battery

What’s the environmental impact of disposable vapes?

With over 1.3 million disposable vapes being thrown away in the UK every single week, you get a sense of the scale of the impact.

A study from recycling campaigners Material Focus said the number of disposable vapes that end up in landfills each year is enough to fill 22 football pitches.

That’s 1.4 million square feet of land, or enough space for 14,000 kilowatts’ worth of solar panels — which could power 4,000 homes per year.


Why are disposable vapes so bad for the environment?

Disposable vapes contain valuable materials such as lithium batteries and copper, both of which are finite and essential to many electrical goods produced around the world.

Lithium, which is used in the majority of rechargeable technologies including batteries for electric vehicles, is already suffering from a global shortage. And in the middle of a climate crisis, it’s essential more people switch to using electric vehicles to reduce carbon emissions.

Around 10 tonnes of lithium is lost each year when people throw their disposable vapes away — enough to power roughly 1,200 electric vehicles.

That’s a potential annual CO2 reduction of 2,200 tonnes per year being chucked in bins and on pavements.

The total amount of lithium lost each year rises to 23 tonnes when you include all types of vapes — the equivalent to 2,884 electric vehicle batteries.

Disposable vapes can cause fires at waste disposal plants too, if the lithium battery inside is damaged, which will belch substantial pollution into the atmosphere.

Vapes that don’t even make it to the bin can leak and release metals, battery acid, and nicotine into the environment as well. This can contaminate water and natural habitats, harming animals and poisoning our water supply.


Where are most disposable vapes produced?

The majority of disposable vapes are made in China, because of lower labour costs and their ease of manufacture, which means lots of factories can mass produce them without much difficulty.

Around 80% of all disposable vapes are produced in China, with the UK, the US, and a few other countries making up the remaining 20%.

This leads to even more environmental damage, as billions of vapes from China are transported around the world via plane and freight ships.

China controlled an even larger share of vape manufacturing until recently, with the city of Shenzhen once responsible for 90% of the world’s entire supply of disposable vapes.

Person holding a green disposable vape

Are disposable vapes recyclable?

Yes, you can recycle disposable vapes because they’re classified as Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE).

That means consumers can dispose of their vapes in household recycling centres or the shop they bought them from, but this is misunderstood by the 50% of vapers who throw them in the bin.

Few if any disposable vape manufacturers make it clear that their products can be recycled, so it’s hard to lay the blame solely on consumers. Education needs to be better and companies should start by altering packaging with the right messaging.

Elfbar, a leading manufacturer of disposable vapes, told BBC News that it recognises the rapid growth of the market has “environmental implications.”

The company said it’ll introduce recycling boxes for retailers to use to collect its products, but hasn’t given a timeline for when this’ll happen.

Elfbar added: “We are also placing great emphasis on the future design of our products so that they have a longer shelf life rather than just being single use.”

This still doesn’t address the use of essential materials such as lithium and copper, which would be better off going towards green technologies including electric vehicles and storage batteries.


Where can you recycle disposable vapes?

You can recycle your disposable vapes at a local recycling centre, the shop you bought it from, or any shop that recycles batteries — keep an eye out for large see-through containers typically filled with AA batteries.

Remove the battery from your vape if you can, but if that’s not possible then you can still recycle the entire unit.

Recycling centres and shops that recycle batteries are legally obliged to accept disposable vapes because they are classified as WEEE, regardless of whether or not the vape was bought in the shop.

Find your nearest recycling point for disposable vapes here.

What’s the carbon footprint of disposable vaping so far?

59,650 tonnes of CO2 is released in the production of disposable vapes, from the 167.5 million sold in the UK each year.

That’s the same amount of CO2 released by roughly 375,795 people in the UK annually.

Globally, around 1.9 million tonnes of CO2 is released in the production of disposable vapes, or 0.3% of the Amazon Rainforest’s annual capacity for absorbing carbon emissions.

How much has demand grown for disposable vapes?

Around 20% of all adults in the UK have bought a single-use vape, a rechargeable one, or a vape with a single-use chamber.

This amounts to roughly half a billion vapes purchased annually, which is a staggering amount of lithium not being used in greener technologies.

Just 7.7% of vapers used disposable vapes in 2021, but this jumped to 52% in 2022 — a huge increase, and one health professionals are concerned about, as the long-term impacts of vaping on health are still unknown.

Should disposable vapes be banned?

Banning disposable vapes would mean freeing up valuable resources for use in electric vehicles and storage batteries, but it’s not that simple.

Vaping is seen as a better alternative to smoking tobacco and the industry is now worth billions.

Some activists are calling for a complete ban on disposable vapes, whereas others are campaigning for manufacturers and retailers to install collection points for used vapes in shops.

There are calls for the flavoured liquids in vapes to be switched to either flavourless or menthol to discourage their use among young people too, who are by far the largest demographic of disposable vape users.

China has already completely banned flavoured disposable vapes, despite being the world’s largest exporter.

Are cigarettes less bad for the environment than disposable vapes?

Cigarettes are still much worse for the environment than disposable vapes, as a recent report by the United Nations showed.

The global tobacco industry costs the world 600 million trees, 200,000 hectares of land, and 22 billion tonnes of water every single year.

It’s also responsible for 84 million tonnes of CO2, which is the equivalent of the annual emissions of 13.3 million UK residents.

The filters used in cigarettes, which do not degrade, create around 1.8 million tonnes of waste a year.

Plastic fibres made from cellulose acetate in the filters break down into microplastics that can leak into water supplies and the ocean, harming marine life and making its way into the food chain.

4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded globally, but this is thankfully falling — cigarette litter was down 7.7% in 2020.


Using disposable vapes is healthier than smoking tobacco, but their impact on the environment and use of materials needed for electric vehicles and storage batteries make them controversial.

Their rapid growth in popularity is concerning for environmentalists, especially as barely half of them are recycled. It’s clear that better education is needed to get more people to recycle them.

Whether banning disposable vapes is the right way to go or not, there’s no mistaking their negative effects on the environment and how they represent another unfortunate facet of our throwaway society.

Written by:
Tom Gill
Tom joined The Eco Experts over a year ago and has since covered the carbon footprint of the Roman Empire, profiled the world’s largest solar farms, and investigated what a 100% renewable UK would look like. Tom has a particular interest in the global energy market and how it works, including the ongoing semiconductor shortage, the future of hydrogen, and Cornwall's growing lithium industry.
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