February 17, 2023
This blog was updated on 31 May 2023 from the original version posted February 17, 2023, to reflect the launch of Valpak’s vape take-back scheme and the rapidly evolving regulatory and commercial environment for vapes in the UK.
Environmental issues and health & safety concerns around e-cigarettes and vapes require increased awareness and clear regulatory guidance. The historic path for treating used devices has been high-temperature incineration. In Spring 2023, Valpak introduced a new take-back scheme in the United Kingdom to facilitate the recycling of single-use vaping devices at scale.
What's the problem?
The rapid rise in popularity of single use e-cigarettes or vapes has been driven both by the growing variety of products on sale, as well as the proliferation of vape shops across our UK high streets. Research from Material Focus, a non-profit organisation funded by the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, estimates that 14 million single-use vapes are bought each month, 1.3 million of which are unsafely discarded in rubbish bins or on the streets every week (Material Focus, July 2022). That equates to nearly 200,000 devices every day.
The development of a new market at this speed and size creates a legislation vacuum and poses significant environmental and health & safety considerations for key players in the recycling process. For a product to be considered recyclable, it requires a market for the used and reprocessed material. Whilst widespread, single-use vapes are still in their infancy, and the normal steps for establishing such a market for waste material has not yet caught up with demand.
Safety and environmental concerns
One of the main issues associated with single-use vapes is improper disposal. Designed for single-use, vaping devices contain a variety of constituent parts that make them difficult and expensive to recycle. E-cigarette devices typically contain an encased lithium-ion battery that cannot be easily removed. If damaged, these devices can lead to substantial fire hazard risk from self-combustion in collection points, waste collection vehicles, sortation systems or landfills. Fires not only endanger waste workers but they can also destroy equipment and have an adverse environmental impact. Even when correctly dismantled, some materials found in used vaping devices, such as liquid nicotine or used wicks, can be dangerous.
Consumer awareness is low when it comes to issues around the disposal of their vaping devices.
According to a report from the Institute of Environmental Management in May 2022, there was at the time of writing no disposable vape recycling schemes large enough to meet the demand in the UK (IEMA, May 2022). The only way to safely dispose of these devices at scale was through high-temperature incineration for energy output.
At the time of writing (February 17, 2023), the UK currently lacks infrastructure to manage the disposal of vapes in comparison to the scale of demand. No sufficient regulatory and commercial framework exists to define how to recycle vaping devices, who is responsible, and how it should be funded. Furthermore, growing political interest around banning single-use vapes only encourages stagnation of investment in infrastructure that could soon be obsolete.
A responsible solution
Amid the challenges posed by the disposal of single-use vapes, Valpak has taken a step forward to address these issues by launching a new take-back scheme for single-use vaping devices. Our new scheme will facilitate the safe collection and recycling of single use vapes and e-cigarettes. Using manual and semi-automated processes in partnership with a waste processing and logistics company, our scheme will dismantle vapes to ensure valuable resources can be recycled at scale. Where components cannot be recycled, they will be sent for safe disposal through incineration with energy recovery.
Valpak is working with all stakeholders, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Environment Agency, the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), retailers, manufacturers, distributors, compliance schemes and waste managers. Our aim is to ensure that our take-back scheme is both transparent and commercially viable, provides convenient access to collection points to prevent items being littered, and removes the risks posed by mixing vapes with other waste and recycling streams.
We believe preventing this rapidly evolving problem from turning into a crisis begins with collection. Like our battery collection function, our take-back scheme provides collection boxes that enable users to responsibly dispose of undamaged, used vaping devices at convenient locations.
More information can be found online at recyclemore.co.uk/vapes.