Disposable E-Cigarettes: A Problem That Should Not Have Been

June 13, 2024

A new form of pollution is conquering the Swiss environment and creating challenges for waste management: disposable e-cigarettes. This problem could have been avoided if decisive action had been taken. Instead, Swiss authorities decide not to act and leave it to the private sector. As a result, the problem only grows bigger. It is time for this to change.

Disposable e-cigarettes only came onto the Swiss market in 2020. Their use experienced a fulgurant increase since. No official data exist, but according to the industry, already in 2022 around 10 million vapes were imported into the country. And data from abroad only indicate their further advance: In the UK, the sales of disposable e-cigarettes is estimated to have doubled between 2022 and 2023, and in the US their consumption increased almost 200% between 2022 and 2023.

Evidently, the increasing use of disposable e-cigarettes does not go without a growing amount of waste. This is now estimated at 20-30 tons annually in Switzerland.

Independent from the underestimated health dangers of e-cigarettes, this waste creates important problems.

E-cigarettes: challenging waste management and recycling

Disposable e-cigarettes create very complex e-waste. Small as they might be, they comprise both plastic waste (their hull) and electronic waste (circuit boards & lithium-ion batteries), as well as hazardous chemical waste (nicotine and other substance in the e-liquid). Therefore, in the US, for instance, they are now classified as hazardous waste. Many occasions have been reported, both abroad and in Switzerland, where lithium-ion batteries have caused fires in waste management and recycling facilities. The increasing prevalence of disposable e-cigarettes – each containing such a battery – in household waste, poses a clear safety hazard to these infrastructures and the people working there.

Even when disposed through appropriate channels, the complexity of disposable e-cigarettes (i.e. very small items, made of multiple components difficult to separate) make them complex to recycle. As a result, e-cigarettes are little recycled. In Switzerland, they are even not recycled at all. At present, separately collected e-cigarettes are just stored, waiting for an industrial recycling process to take care of them. Such a process, however, does not yet exist.

E-cigarettes: environmentally harmful in multiple ways

Of course, all this only talks about e-cigarettes which are in some way, or another properly disposed of, not about those littered in the environment. Given how recent disposable e-cigarettes appeared in our societies, coherent data are still missing, but we undoubtedly observe a rise in their litter prevalence, also in Switzerland.

Out in the environment, disposable e-cigarettes are a long-term threat. The plastic of their hull, their battery, the residues of the vaping liquids, separately each of these already causes environmental havoc. Combined, and in interaction with the numerous other pollutants humans constantly leak into the environment, the harm only increases.

E-cigarettes: material spoilage at a grotesque level

On top of that, disposable e-cigarettes are the summum of wastefulness. An unhealthy product with no intrinsic usefulness whatsoever, except creating profit for those who produce and sell it, is equipped with a battery, containing about 0.15 g of lithium. While these batteries could be recharged hundreds of times, the cigarettes’ disposable design prevents this. As a result, incredible amounts of lithium – a non-renewable but increasingly sought-after material, pivotal to any meaningful energy transition – are simply leaked into the environment and lost through un-adapted waste management processes. In the UK alone an estimated 5’000 electric vehicle batteries worth of lithium have thus been spoiled in 2023. And, considering the estimated number of 844 million e-cigarettes discarded worldwide in 2022, that makes for more than 16’500 car batteries.

E-cigarettes: a problem that could have been stopped before it appeared (but which was not)

Considering their numerous problems, many countries around the globe have by now banned disposable e-cigarettes, including a number of European countries –  the UK, but also EU member states like Belgium and France. And Switzerland? So far nothing.

Parliamentary motions by Christophe Clivaz and Delfine Klopfenstein-Broggini asked the Federal Council for a decisive stance. Yet, while fully recognising the many issues with disposable e-cigarettes, the government in its replies, consciously choses to put commercial and economic interest before the protection of the environment, people’s health included. As for so many other environmental issues, federal authorities just trust the private sector to come up with voluntary initiatives. This strategy of wilful inaction only allows for the problem to grow bigger and more complex with the day. This should chance, rapidly. Given the evidence, Switzerland should follow its neighbours and ban disposable e-cigarettes.

Update: But there is hope. On 12 June 2024, the National Council – contrary to the Federal Council’s proposal for rejection – accepted with 122 votes against 63 the motion from Christoph Clivaz. Now it is up to the Council of States to confirm the parliament’s commitment…