The number of disposable single-use vapes thrown away has soared from 1.3 million to nearly 5 million per week, according to new research from not-for-profit group Material Focus. This is equivalent to 8 per second being thrown away – almost four times the number since the research was first conducted last year. The group and other commentators offered thoughts on what ought to be done.
The potential yearly cost of collecting and recycling these vapes – according to the same research – now stands at £200 million which currently isn’t being paid for by vape producers, importers and retailers.
Conducted by YouGov with calculations from Material Focus, the research surveyed UK adults and (for the first time) 16-17 year olds to identify how many single-use vapes are being bought in the UK and their methods of disposal. It also explored the preferred recycling solutions for vapes.
In these findings, UK adults report buying over 360 million single-use vapes per annum, containing valuable and critical materials such as lithium and copper that are regularly being binned that could instead be powering nearly 5,000 electric vehicles. They are toxic and damaging to the environment and wildlife if littered. The number of battery-related waste fires continues to rise, some of which are considered to have been sparked by vapes being thrown away instead of being recycled. Last year, research identified that 700 fires are caused by batteries hidden inside electricals such as vapes in the waste stream.
Scott Butler of Material Focus said: “Since we last published our research the problem with single-use vapes has gotten further out of control. Single-use vapes are a strong contender for being the most environmentally wasteful, damaging and dangerous consumer product ever made. And still very few producers and retailers comply with environmental regulations and haven’t put recycling drop-off points and systems in place. This all means that too often local authorities are being burdened with the major operational and financial headaches associated with what is now the fastest growing and most dangerous waste stream in the UK, single-use vapes.
“Vapes, like any other electrical with a plug, battery or cable, should never be binned and always be recycled as a minimum. We need rapid growth in the number of accessible and visible vape recycling drop-off points. And we need proper financing of genuine recycling solutions to recover materials and manage fire risks. The solution is clear: immediate, significant and transparent vape industry voluntary action in advance of planned regulatory changes already earmarked by Defra. The UK needs more accessible recycling drop-off points in stores, in parks, in public spaces near offices, bars and pubs, and in schools, colleges and universities. With 75% of vapers thinking that producers and retailers should provide more information that states that vapes can be recycled the word “disposable” should no longer be used in any marketing and promotion.
“Until single-use vape producers, importers and retailers act to genuinely comply with and finance their legal environmental responsibilities then the calls for banning the sale of them will only strengthen.”
Commenting on the findings, Donald Macphail, Veolia UK Chief Operating Officer, Treatment said:
“Just because something is disposable, it doesn’t necessarily mean it can go in the bin. Millions of vapes are thrown away each week, causing fires in collection trucks and recycling facilities – when they can and should be recycled.
“We need consumers to bring vapes and batteries back to designated return points so they can be safely treated and recycled to preserve the valuable lithium and plastic for new items. We also need vape producers to design vapes for recycling, they contain critical raw materials that we need for an electric future.
“This is a classic example of a product coming on the market without considering the environmental impact of their full life cycles.”
Additionally, we need support from the Government, he suggested.
“The Environment Agency has set a 55% recycling target for vapes, but at the moment the UK is far from achieving that goal. To increase this, we need to build a stronger policy and legislation position to encourage eco design and new recycling investment – and fast. We need to create a new individual EEE Product Category for vapes and ensure all manufacturers are signed up to the obligated producers list to properly implement the “producer pays” model.
The analysis of the research by Material Focus also reported that:
- Over 30 million single-use vapes are bought per month by UK adults 16+ (double compared to Material Focus research conducted of adults 18+ in 2022)
- Only 17% of people who buy vapes (“vapers”) say that they recycle single-use vapes in a shop or local recycling centre
- Nearly 3 million single-use vapes a month are being hoarded in UK cupboards
- 73% of UK vapers say they throw away single-use vapes
- 1% of UK vapers say they flush single-use vapes down the toilet
- 3% of UK vapers say they drop single-use vapes on the ground (8% by 16-18 year olds)
- 33% of 16-18 year- olds vapers throw single-use vapes away in the bin at their place of education or work
- 33% of 16-18 years olds keep old single-use vapes stored in a cupboard at home (compared to 14% average)
- The main reason that 16-18 tends to throw away/ drop/ flush their vapes is because they don’t want the people they live with to know they vape – 31% compared to 8% of the population
Material Focus presents a package of solutions to solve the problem:
- Immediate, significant and transparent vape industry voluntary action on a comprehensive and widely accessible take-back and recycling solution alongside a major communications campaign to raise public awareness
- More information displayed on vapes on how they can be recycled – 70% of people threw their single-use vapes away because they didn’t know they could recycle them
- More recycling points for vapes in stores, parks, public places and schools and colleges:
- 54% of vapers said they would be more likely to recycle single-use vapes if there were recycling points in store
- For 16-18 year old vapers, said they would be more likely to recycle if there were recycling points in their place of education/work – 40%
- 44% of vapers said they would recycle their single-use vapes if there were recycling points in a street or park
- Kerbside recycling could also have a role to play with 50% saying they would be likely to recycle if this was available to them
- And 34% said they would recycle their single-use vapes if there were recycling facilities in pubs or bars/ music venues
- Recycle Your Electricals has a postcode locator which has over 13,000 locations, where vapes can be taken to be recycled
- All supermarkets, high street convenience stores, petrol stations, and specialist vape stores should be taking back old single-use vapes when you buy new ones.
Material Focus has also produced a briefing note for retailers and producers on how they can comply with environmental regulations for vapes.