A boom in sales of disposable vapes has led to millions ending up in landfill, despite containing valuable lithium, the metal on which much of the high-tech economy depends, a joint investigation by Sky News and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found.
Available in a wide range of colours and flavours, the hassle-free and highly addictive pen-sized devices are the fastest-growing alternative to smoking in the UK, overtaking other types of refillable and reusable vapes for the first time this year.
Our research suggests users in the UK are throwing away around two disposable vapes every second.
The battery in the average disposable vape contains little more than a tenth of a gramme of lithium metal. But it adds up.
The number of discarded disposable vapes accounts for around 10 tonnes of lithium being sent to landfill or waste incinerators each year – enough of the metal to make batteries for 1,200 electric cars.
‘It really is madness’
“We can’t be throwing these materials away, it really is madness in a climate emergency,” said Mark Miodownik, professor of materials and society at University College London.
“It’s in your laptop, it’s in your mobile phone, it’s in electric cars. This is the material that we are absolutely relying on to shift away from fossil fuels and address climate issues.”
Market research by Opinium for Material Focus, a non-profit recycling organisation, found 18% of 4,000 people surveyed had bought a vape in the previous year. Of those, 7% said they had bought a disposable device. This suggests around 168 million disposable vapes are being bought annually in the UK.
Just over half of users reported throwing their vapes in the bin when it runs out, rather than putting them in a waste electricals recycling bin, or returning them to the retailer.
“From producers through to us as consumers, we need to be more mindful in the decisions that we make, the products that we manufacture and the products that we buy,” said Scott Butler, executive director of Material Focus.
“It needs to be made significantly easier for many people to do the right thing, because most people want to do the right thing.”
Are UK’s top throwaway vape brands going enough?
But our investigation suggests the disposable vape producers may not even be meeting the minimum obligations to recycle their products.
The country’s two leading disposable vape brands are Elf Bar and Geek Bar.
Under UK law, the products are classed as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). Producers or importers of products classed as WEEE have certain responsibilities under the regulations to ensure they are recycled, including placing themselves on a register.
Our investigation found no evidence of the manufacturer or importer of Geek Bar or Elf Bar being on the WEEE register. Neither of them responded to our request for comment.
We put the findings of our investigation to the Environment Agency, which is responsible for enforcing the WEEE regulations.
In a response, it told us: “Businesses who sell electrical or electronic equipment on the UK market are required to comply with the WEEE regulations. Any business identified as failing to comply with these regulations will be subject to an appropriate enforcement response.”
Disposable vapes are just one product in a growing mountain of electrical and electronic waste that is not being recycled. Previous research by Material Focus estimated there were some 500 million items of electrical waste in UK homes. The amount of valuable metals like copper, gold, and lithium that is either being hoarded or landfilled could be worth £370m to the UK economy each year, it found.
Defra is conducting a review of how to improve the collection and recycling of what it defines as “small mixed waste, electric and electronic equipment” later this year.
If you have waste electrical devices, or products containing batteries, and you’re not sure where you can recycle them, you can find out more here.
You can find the Bureau of Investigative Journalism here.