- Banning disposable e-cigarettes, also known as vapes, is the “only solution” for curbing the plastic and battery waste the devices create, according to a report released Tuesday from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
- The report, which explores environmental impacts of the products, says disposable devices are difficult to properly recycle due to a lack of infrastructure and regulation around e-waste recycling. The devices also contain lithium-ion batteries as well as small plastic parts.
- The report advocates for federal and state legislation banning or restricting the devices as a way to keep them out of landfills and waterways and prevent fires. It also calls for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to better enforce vape marketing restrictions, particularly for disposable versions.
The waste and recycling industry has recently grappled with how to manage e-cigarettes and the fire danger they pose in trucks and at facilities. Their small size, combined with the device’s heating coil and lithium-ion battery, make them hard to identify in places like MRFs, and they can cause fires when accidentally crushed or shredded.
PIRG sees disposable vape models as particularly harmful because they are manufactured with rechargeable batteries but no mechanism to reuse or refill the device after it runs out of the included e-liquid. “It doesn’t make any sense to manufacture electronics with rechargeable batteries, ship them across the world, and throw them out within a few days,” the report states. PIRG has called on retailers to stop selling disposable vape models. For consumers who still want to vape, the organization recommends a switch to reusable/refillable models.
According to the report, there is currently no standardized way to recycle e-cigarettes in the U.S. The Drug Enforcement Administration accepts some types of e-cigarette devices and cartridges during its annual National Prescription Take Back Day, but the DEA cannot accept devices containing lithium ion batteries, the report said.
Some businesses offer e-cigarette takeback programs and recycling services, including TerraCycle and Call2Recycle, though the groups also have limitations on what models and types they can recycle. Industry groups have also called for better public education around proper vape disposal and recycling or have called to work with e-cigarette manufacturers to create more recyclable models.
Though the waste and recycling industry has a role to play in managing vape waste, recycling infrastructure for end-of-life vapes won’t solve the overarching issues of vape-related pollution, said report author Lucas Rockett Gutterman. “Ultimately, even with advances in e-waste recycling capacity, we won’t be able to solve this problem unless we stop producing so much stuff.”
A rise in vapes’ popularity, mixed with a lack of public education on how to properly dispose of them, has contributed to an increase in e-cigarette-related litter, the report said. It cited a report by the Ocean Conservancy that found cigarette butts are becoming less common in beach litter. However, PIRG says, vape litter is on the rise and “endanger[ing] ocean creatures that inadvertently consume the plastics.”
PIRG sees federal and state legislative actions as a direct way to manage future vape waste. The FDA has recently cracked down on companies marketing flavored vape cartridges for reusable e-cigarettes, but disposable vapes aren’t currently mentioned in the FDA guidance. PIRG said the use of disposables surged after flavored cartridges for certain reusables were prohibited and now represent about 53% of vape sales. PIRG advocates for the federal Disposable ENDS Product Enforcement Act, which calls for the FDA to include disposable vapes as part of its enforcement policy.
State legislators have also introduced bills to curtail vape waste but have seen limited traction. New York’s A1598 would establish an e-cigarette recycling program and require retailers to collect both refillable and disposable e-cigarettes for recycling, but the bill has not made much headway this year. Last year in California, AB 1690 proposed banning single-use e-cigarettes, but that bill did not gain momentum.
The public is becoming more conscious of buying products with more sustainable packaging, which Gutterman said can have an influence on future legislation and on brand decision-making. He points to the recent passage of right-to-repair legislation in New York and Minnesota as examples. While those new laws do not cover e-cigarettes, “more consumers are demanding products that are repairable, reusable, and durable,” he said. “The pushback against disposable vapes is a part of this larger cultural turn.”