A boom in the sale of disposable vapes has led to millions of them ending up in landfill despite containing valuable lithium, a metal on which much of the high-tech economy depends, a joint investigation by Sky News and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed.
Available in a wide range of colors and flavours, the simple, pen-sized and highly addictive devices are the UK’s fastest-growing alternative to smoking, overtaking other reusable and reusable vapes for the first time this year.
Our research shows that users in the UK throw away around two disposable vapes every second.
A typical disposable vape battery contains just over a tenth of a gram of lithium metal. But it adds up.
The amount of discarded single-use vapes is about 10 tons of lithium, which is sent to landfill or incinerators every year – enough metal to make batteries for 1,200 electric cars.
“We can’t throw these materials away, it’s really crazy in a climate emergency,” said Mark Medovnik, professor of materials and society at University College London.
“It’s in your laptop, it’s in your cell phone, it’s in electric cars. This is the material we are fully counting on to move away from fossil fuels and solve climate problems.”
Market research by Opinium for Material Focus, a non-profit recycling organization, found that 18% of the 4,000 people surveyed had bought a vape in the past year. Of these, 7% said they bought a disposable device. This suggests that around 168 million disposable vapes are bought in the UK each year.
Just over half of users reported throwing their vapes in the trash when they’re finished, instead of putting them in the electrical waste recycling bin or returning them to the retailer.
“From manufacturers to us as consumers, we need to be more mindful of the decisions we make, the products we make and the products we buy,” said Scott Butler, chief executive of Material Focus.
“It should be much easier for many people to do the right thing because most people want to do the right thing.”
But our investigation shows that manufacturers of single-use vapes may not even be meeting minimum recycling obligations for their products.
The two leading disposable vape brands in the country are Elf Bar and Geek Bar.
Under UK law, the products are classified as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). Producers or importers of products classified as WEEE have certain obligations under the regulations to ensure they are recycled, including placing themselves on the register.
Our investigation found no evidence that the manufacturer or importer of the Geek Bar or Elf Bar is on the WEEE register. Neither responded to our request for comment.
We are passing the results of our investigation on to the Environment Agency, which is responsible for enforcing WEEE regulations.
In response, we were told: “Businesses selling electrical or electronic equipment on the UK market are required to comply with WEEE regulations. Any business found to be non-compliant will be subject to appropriate enforcement action.”
Disposable vapes are just one product in the growing mountain of non-recyclable electrical and electronic waste. Previous research by Material Focus estimated that there were around 500 million units of electrical waste in UK homes. The amount of precious metals such as copper, gold and lithium that are either hoarded or landfilled could cost the UK economy £370m every year.
Later this year, Defra is conducting a review into how to improve the collection and recycling of what it defines as “mixed small waste, electrical and electronic equipment”.
If you have used electrical appliances or products that contain batteries and don’t know where to recycle them, you can find out more here.
You can find the Bureau of Investigative Journalism here.