Are you looking for a genuinely scary Halloween outfit? If you don’t want to go as a gas bill or Liz Truss at a cheese market, a single use vape would be the best bet. When it comes to littering trends, vapes – such as Elf and Geek bars – have taken over from those tiny glittering canisters of nitrous oxide; instead of seeing a whole galaxy of nos canisters decorating the floor after a festival, you now see kaleidoscopic confetti made of the thin brightly-coloured tubes.
Vaping has exploded in popularity over the past decade, with an estimated 4.3 million Brits using an e‑cigarette. But more recently, disposable vapes – as opposed to non-disposable, refillable ones – have become much more popular in the last year. And while there’s no doubt this is, relatively, better for our health (the NHS describes vaping as “far less harmful” than smoking because they are tobacco-free), it’s catastrophic for the environment.
Research carried out by the non-profit organisation Material Focus and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism looked into the environmental impact of single-use vapes, which they found now account for 37 per cent of all the vapes bought last year. This figure increases to 52 per cent for 18-to-34 year olds.
A tidal wave of these finger-sized, single-use vapes, 1.3 million in total they concluded, are thrown away in landfills in the UK every week. Every week. In a year, that’d be enough to cover 22 football pitches with vapes. We are throwing away two disposable vapes every second in the UK, which is roughly one vape every time we get a new prime minister.
Joe, 27, who works in advertising, tried the “disposable” vapes for around six months. “It was something I did on nights out at first,” he told THE FACE. “Just pinching bits off mates.” But that didn’t last for long. “I soon started going out and buying them for myself.” He gave up the vapes when he started smoking, too, defeating the object entirely. What happened to all the vapes? “I kept most of my empties as I didn’t know how to recycle them properly,” he says. “I did see a bin to recycle them at Victoria Park once, around festival time, but that was it.”
Inside those brightly-coloured plastic tubes, which look suspiciously like they are designed to appeal to children, looking as they do quite like highlighter pens, one of the key materials is a lithium battery. Each vape contains an average of 0.15g of lithium, meaning that while we are tossing out our 1.3 million single-use vapes, we are also throwing away 10 tonnes of lithium a year. That’s enough lithium for the batteries inside 1,200 Teslas. An ElfBar has a battery capacity of 550mAh, whereas an iPhone 13 has a 3,227mAh battery capacity – with seven Elf Bars you could power the phone, but instead people get their 500 – 600 puffs from it and then send it to a landfill.
We’re not just throwing away vapes here, we are wasting some of the most precious materials on the planet. Our weekend ElfBar has consequences far away from the pub we’re drinking in. Half the world’s reserves of lithium are in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, and the rush to mine the chemical element is compromising vital ecosystems and depriving Indigenous communities of precious water. And yet, we selfishly continue to throw lithium away once the one-use product no longer serves a purpose, discarding them like an apple core in the compost heap and starting the process again, when we buy a new one.
It’s like getting a new phone every time the battery is low. It reminds me of someone I lived with in a warehouse: they were so lazy and/or drug-addled that rather than washing T‑shirts they would just throw them away and buy new ones from ASOS. They were even once caught throwing away kitchen utensils rather than washing them. This made me want to remove the frying pan from the bin and viciously pummel them over and over again.
Oliver, a 17-year-old college student, started smoking when he was 13 but decided to quit last April. “It’s the one thing I spend the most money on,” he says. “I buy three for £15 and that’s at least every week. I just chuck my dead ones in the bin. I didn’t even know you could recycle them.” That’s not his fault of course, the bars are sold to him as a disposable product. Electrical waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the UK. More than 155,000 tonnes is chucked away every year here – 23.9kg produced per head. We are the second worst culprits, after Norway.
Danielle, a 26-year-old fundraiser, has quit smoking and replaced it with two or three disposable vapes every eight or nine days. She finds it less addictive. “I love the way it smells and tastes, and it takes the edge off in the same way that smoking did but I don’t feel the craving as heavily,” she says. I asked about recycling. “I take the battery out of the vape,” she replied, “and recycle the plastic normally and the battery in a battery recycling bin.” In the Material Focus study, researchers found that when it comes to all types of vapes, 23 per cent of users recycle their vapes in the shop when they buy new ones.
A big part of the problem here is the way that these vapes are advertised. A product containing expensive materials is sold as a cheap, disposable item. But it’s not a disposable product really: it contains a powerful rechargeable battery. People on the internet have worked out how to repurpose them into lights and camera chargers.
If this was a product that was designed in the ’50s when we didn’t know much about how over-consumption could threaten the human race, it would be fair enough. But it’s not. These have been designed and marketed at a time in history where we know full well that we are fucking up the planet. They shouldn’t be banned, we know from experience (see: the calamitous War on Drugs) that prohibiting something makes it more desirable. But they should come with a recycling deposit on each one that the user can claim back when they recycle the product. And the companies that make these should be taxed into oblivion.
In the meantime, if you vape, click here to find your nearest recycling point. You know what to do.
We contacted Elf and Geek to ask them about all this. At the time of writing they have not responded. If they do, we’ll update the article.