The Overlooked Environmental Impact of Vaping

3 minute read

Lined up end-to-end, the disposable e-cigarettes sold and (presumably) trashed annually in the U.S. could stretch across the country and back again, according to a new report that highlights a growing problem: vape waste.

Disposable vapes typically have plastic bodies that are designed to be used until they’re empty and then tossed, as opposed to devices that can be refilled with nicotine e-liquids or pods. The CDC Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates that each month in the U.S., consumers purchase 11.9 million disposable e-cigarettes. Based on that figure, the new report—from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a nonpartisan consumer-interest group—estimates that the disposable vapes sold annually would stretch longer than 7,000 miles if lined up, more than twice the width of the continental U.S.

Once little-used, disposable e-cigarettes accounted for about 53% of e-cigarette unit sales in the U.S. as of March 2023, according to the CDC Foundation. Single-use products like Puff Bar have also unseated once-dominant vaping brands like Juul (which sells devices that can be recharged and refilled with e-liquid cartridges) among underage users, according to federal data.

That swift ascent started in part because of a regulatory loophole. In early 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a ban on the sale of many flavored vaping products—but disposable e-cigarettes were not part of the policy, making them an appealing option for people who wanted to continue to use flavors. Their takeoff has concerned both public-health and environmental advocates.

In addition to creating plenty of plastic waste, discarded e-cigarettes can be considered both e-waste (because of their circuitry and lithium-ion batteries) and hazardous waste (because they contain nicotine). E-cigarettes are also difficult to recycle, and many people don’t even try: garbology research has found evidence of plenty of vape litter. A 2022 survey found that just 8% of teen or young-adult vapers sent their used disposable devices to recycling facilities.

Within the e-cigarette category, disposables “pose the highest potential environmental costs,” according to a 2018 paper in the American Journal of Public Health, because they aren’t used as long as refillable models. A 2022 letter in the Lancet Respiratory Medicine called for tighter regulations on single-use vapes to ward off “environmental disaster.”

Some legislators have pushed for such regulations. Lawmakers in California and New York have, respectively, introduced bills meant to limit the sale of single-use vapes—many of which have not cleared the FDA’s authorization process—and establish better disposal practices for e-cigarettes. A recent New York City lawsuit also aims to block flavored e-cigarettes sales there, with a particular emphasis on disposable products.

A representative for the Vapor Technology Association, a trade group for the vaping industry, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the meantime, suggests the new report, people who vape can make a simple switch to benefit the environment: choose reusable devices instead of those that go straight in the trash. “Nothing used for a day or two,” the report says, “should pollute our environment for hundreds of years.”

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