Millions of disposable vapes that could be recycled are ending up in landfill despite containing lithium and other materials needed for batteries in electric cars and consumer electronics.
A joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Sky News and the Daily Telegraph suggests that two disposable vapes are being thrown away every second in the UK. Over a year, this is enough lithium to make roughly 1,200 electric car batteries.
Survey figures suggest about 168 million disposable vapes are being bought every year in the UK. Most of the devices, also known as single-use e-cigarettes, contain a rechargeable battery but no charging port and are designed to be disposable.More than half of people that buy single-use vapes simply bin them after use, according to the research carried out by Opinium on behalf of Material Focus, a not-for-profit recycling organisation.
While each vape contains just 0.15g of lithium, the scale of the waste means about 10 tonnes of the metal is ending up in landfills.
“We can’t be throwing these materials away. It really is madness in a climate emergency – lithium is one of the things that is going to fuel the green economy,” Mark Miodownik, professor of materials and society at University College London, said. “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. We need to take care of every bit of lithium.”
Lithium demand for batteries is forecast to increase fivefold by 2030, according to one industry consultant. Producing the metal is a complex process that uses huge amounts of energy and water.
In the UK, vapes are classified as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and require specialist recycling. Importers bear certain obligations for electrical and electronic waste and should be listed on the public register under WEEE producer requirements. However, the biggest importers do not appear to be registered.
Disposable vapes come in a range of flavours, including blueberry bubblegum and watermelon, and appeal particularly to young people. Office for National Statistics data from 2020 found that 6.4% of people in the UK vape, while another 7.8% had tried vaping.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it will be exploring improvements to the collection and recycling of electronic equipment this year.