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Environmental Destruction

Pollution from production to “disposal”: The life cycle of a vape

Published May 25, 2023
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Vape pollution is an environmental hazard because it is three forms of waste in one: plastic waste, hazardous waste, and electronic waste (e-waste). From farming and production to sales and disposal, vapes harm our environment every step of the way. 

Step 1: Pollution starts at the source – production

Starting at the very beginning of their production, vapes are devastating for our environment. Sourcing raw materials for these products is highly resource intensive, requiring not just plastics, but heavy metals, lithium-ion for batteries, and nicotine from tobacco plants.12

Take the lithium batteries in vapes, for example. Lithium mining for these types of batteries creates an environmental issue of rising concern. In one form of mining, around 15 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) are emitted for every ton of lithium sourced.3 This extraction process also requires the use of chemicals and immense amounts of water and can leave contaminants and other toxic waste in its wake.4

The nicotine used in these products often comes from tobacco plants.5 With the farming of tobacco plants comes the destruction of forests, contamination of soil, and depletion of water supplies that is common practice across the tobacco product production chain.6 Not only does tobacco require the use of harsh pesticides and fertilizers which damage the soil, but the industry cuts down nearly 600 million trees a year for growing, harvesting, and curing.78 To put that into perspective, that’s over 16 times the amount of trees California lost this past year primarily to drought.9

 Step 2: The tobacco industry’s environmentally problematic sales model

By design, the majority of vapes are meant to be disposed of after single or short-term use, which is why some vape products feature replaceable pods or cartridges pre-filled with e-juice.10 This sales model ensures that consumers constantly need to purchase new products, which creates new waste. At the beginning of 2020, rising vape use among youth prompted action from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA): The agency banned flavors other than tobacco and menthol in pod or cartridge-based vapes.11 But thanks to intense tobacco industry lobbying efforts, the FDA’s policy did not include disposable vapes.1213  Not surprisingly, the popularity of disposable products like Puff Bar took off.14 Even as the FDA tried to remove these products, other disposable vapes flooded the marketplace and today, disposable vapes remain one of the most popular flavored tobacco products among youth.151617

Vape waste isn’t new. The environmental impacts of vape products are visible throughout the state, including on school campuses. In 2019, California researchers did some “shoe-leather investigating,” collecting tobacco, cannabis, and vape waste from a dozen high school parking lots across the San Francisco Bay Area. Vape waste made up 19 percent of the litter recovered – debris that would have been hard to find on school campuses, let alone in the environment, a decade ago.18

By nature, the environmental impact of vaping produces extremely high volumes of waste. Consider that one survey found that 3.6 million U.S. adults vape daily.19 If even just one-third of this group uses one pod or disposable vape a day, that would produce nearly half a billion pieces of vape waste in one year. And this isn’t counting vape waste from the estimated more than 2.5 million U.S. middle and high school students who vape.20

To make matters worse, disposable vapes create a huge plastic pollution problem. Almost every part of a vape is made of plastic.21 Whether it’s the device body, pods or cartridges, or the battery housing, these components never biodegrade.22

Meaning that while vapes almost never completely deteriorate, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics.23 Though often invisible to the human eye, microplastics are a global problem polluting the food we eat, the water we drink, and even the air we breathe.242526 Microplastics have been found in sea water, tap water, and urban water runoff.272829 Due to their tiny size, microplastics are challenging to remove from our food and water sources.30 It may come as a surprise that Americans ingest an estimated hundreds of thousands of microplastic particles a year.31 According to studies, microplastics have been found in human lungs, placenta, and blood; they’ve been linked to fertility issues, intestinal damage, and even mutations in DNA.323334353637383940

The tobacco industry has made vapes increasingly convenient by marketing disposable products as smokeless, affordable, sleek, and full of flavors to mask the harsh taste of chemicals used in tobacco products.4142 This is to addict the next generation of consumers for profit, with little regard for public health or the environmental impact of vaping.

Tobacco companies avoid accountability and responsibility by “greenwashing” their practices. Greenwashing is the act of making a product appear more friendly or less damaging to the environment than it really is. Big Tobacco’s greenwashing activities minimize the health and environmental dangers of their products to promote a false image of sustainability and harm reduction.43 As tobacco companies roll out their products, they have marketed them as part of a newfound industry ‘commitment’ to a greener, healthier future, but that’s nothing short of false advertising.44

Step 3: More misleading industry myths: vape disposal and decay

So here we are: Unwanted plastic. Used-up e-juice. Toxic chemicals. Dead batteries. Because there’s no industry standard for how to recycle these tobacco products, vapes are often discarded in the trash or recycling bins, leading to a combination of plastic, hazardous waste, and e-waste, that wreaks havoc on our environment now and for years to come.45 Big Tobacco avoids disclosing this in their marketing and offers little to no guidance on how to dispose of their products because, put simply, there is no safe way to do so without taking it apart.46

The electronic waste components of vapes, like lithium-ion batteries, heating elements, microcontroller chips, and chargers, add another layer of disposal danger and environmental harm.47 It shouldn’t come as a surprise that 2.7 million tons of consumer electronic waste, including vape waste, wound up in landfills or incinerators in the U.S. in 2019.48 If vapes are put into garbage or trash receptacles, they pose a fire risk in waste and recycling facilities if damaged or exposed to high heat, putting buildings and workers’ safety at risk.4950

Plastics used for the vape device body cannot be recycled because the heavy metals found in the heating element and the nicotine in the e-juice make them hazardous waste.51 So these discarded vapes not only contribute to a growing plastic pollution problem but release these toxic chemicals into our ground and water when thrown out.52

Nicotine is a neurotoxin and one of the most toxic of all poisons.53 In the past, nicotine was used as an insecticide, until it was commercially banned in 2014 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because of its potential to contaminate agricultural products.54 It shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s harmful to humans, too.55

It’s found in nearly all tobacco products, including vapes.56 Poisoning from liquid nicotine can occur by ingestion, inhalation, or absorption of the product through the skin or eyes.57 Vaping may contribute to the hardening of arteries, which could lead to a heart attack or stroke.58 Or it can cause a person to just be “nic sick,” slang for nicotine poisoning, which can give them fatigue, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and increased blood pressure and heart rate.59

As the nicotine, mercury, lead, bromines, and battery acid from these littered products leach into the environment, they can also be eaten by wildlife or pets.60 Research has shown that even very small amounts of nicotine can be harmful or even lethal to animals.61

The bottom line: Vapes cause harm to our environment at every phase of their life cycle and for many years after they’re tossed away.

Countering Big Tobacco’s lies 

Big Tobacco does everything in its power to continue to deceive the public into thinking that vapes aren’t a huge strain on public health or a source of toxic tobacco pollution.6263

The most meaningful step we can take towards holding Big Tobacco accountable for the devastating environmental impact of vape products is refusing to play their games. 

So, where do we start?

If you currently vape, quit. Do it for your health and the environment! If you need help, Kick It California has free vape quitting services, including an app. Visit KickItCA.org for more information.

Even if you don’t use tobacco products, everyone can get involved in their community’s efforts in a couple of ways:

  1. Help spread the word about harmful vape waste.
  2. Write a letter of concern.
  3. Connect with a local group that’s fighting back against the tobacco industry.
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Hold the industry accountable

California has already protected people from other harmful products, and it's time to hold the tobacco industry to the same standards.