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PennEvironment report calls for disposable vape ban

Aug 10, 2023

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — A new type of litter is starting to replace cigarette butts as the most common refuse on streets and in waterways — disposable vapes.

“While cigarette pollution takes up to 10 years to degrade, disposable vapes are non-biodegradable,” according to a PennEnvironment report published earlier this month. “Who looked at cigarette butts polluting our beaches and thought, ‘How can I make a product that will more effectively trash our oceans by never decomposing?’”

The report, “Vape Waste: The Environmental Harms of Disposable Vapes,” found that electronic waste from single-use e-cigarettes is outpacing efforts to create infrastructure to recycle them properly. In addition to the threats they pose to public health, disposable e-cigarettes contain hazardous materials that can leach into soil and contaminate groundwater.

Vape Waste Report PAE C3 by LVNewsdotcom on Scribd

And e-cigarette litter isn’t a far-off problem — it’s right here in the Valley, too.

“Each year, the Lehigh Valley throws out about 300,000 disposable vapes,” said Faran Savitz, a zero-waste advocate with PennEnvironment. Savitz made the estimate using the calculations from the study, using the Valley's population instead of the U.S. “That's equivalent to throwing out one vape every 105 seconds.

“In a year, that amount of disposable vapes could stretch 14.7 miles if laid end-to-end.”

One of the most prominent issues the report found is that there is currently no standard for recycling disposable vapes – once one is used up, it becomes trash, and the vast majority end up in landfills.

In 2019, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency started accepting e-cigarette and cartridges during its annual National Prescription Take Back Day, but the agency cannot take anything with lithium ion batteries.

“DEA’s National Prescription Drug Take Back Initiative helps get unused and unwanted prescription medications out of circulation and ensures their safe disposal,” said Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon in a 2019 news release. “This year, we are taking a step further by accepting vaping devices and cartridges as we work with our federal partners to combat this emerging public health threat to the nation’s youth.”

Disposable vapes include both the circuit boards and lithium ion batteries that power the device, according to the report. Plus, many vapes can’t be recycled with other plastics because the nicotine e-liquid used is defined by the EPA as an acute hazardous waste.

“We can’t recycle our way out of the problems caused by increasing electronics manufacturing,” according to the report. “While it’s better to recycle than not, our priority should be making fewer devices that solve real problems. Not churning out junk we don't need in the first place.”

The Food and Drug Administration in 2020 cracked down on e-cigarettes with fruit flavors after their popularity exploded among teenagers.

However, the number of different electronic cigarette devices sold in the U.S. has nearly tripled to over 9,000 since then, according to a recent Associated Press report. And disposables are at the forefront.

Once a niche market, cheaper disposables made up 40% of the roughly $7 billion retail market for e-cigarettes last year, according to the report, which cited data from analytics firm IRI obtained by the AP. The company’s proprietary data collects barcode scanner sales from convenience stores, gas stations and other retailers.

More than 5,800 unique disposable products are now being sold in numerous flavors and formulations, according to the data, up 1,500% from 365 in early 2020.

With really no option to recycle, environmentalists are calling for a ban on disposable vapes.

“These products harm our health and environment,” according to the PennEnvironment report. “They waste the finite resources needed for manufacturing new technology.

“The only solution is a ban.”

While officials acknowledge the work already done by the FDA, there’s more enforcement needed, according to the report. While some states and cities have banned flavored vapes, few have employed a total ban and none have targeted disposables specifically.

And, consumers should keep the environment in mind when purchasing vape products.

“Adult vape users should only use approved products with refillable or cartridge-based systems,” according to the report. “Using disposable products is unsustainable.”