Millions of people in the United States now use electronic cigarettes or vapes, fueling growing concerns for users’ health and about the threat the practice poses to the environment.
The electronic smoking devices are adding to plastic waste, environmental experts warn, while their batteries pose a risk of sparking fires, potentially worsening air quality.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report found that in 2021, 4.5 percent of American adults — more than 10 million people — said they use an electronic tobacco product. And a sizable portion of the vapers is young adults and children: More than 2.5 million middle school and high school students admitted to using an e-cigarette within the past month in a 2022 study from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the CDC.
Those young users favor disposable e-cigarettes, with more than half relying on single-use devices from brands like Puff Bar, Vuse, Hyde, and SMOK, the study found.
Many such disposable e-cigarettes wind up in the trash, contributing to the country’s already huge amount of plastic waste.
The exact amount of such waste produced from unrecycled vapes and e-cigarettes is hard to pin down. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not have any data to quantify the volume of plastic waste produced by vapes, a spokesperson told The Hill.
But The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates in the United States, about five vapes, are thrown away every second. That amounts to 150 million devices ending up in landfills or on the ground over the course of a year.
“People are definitely concerned about plastic waste in the form of single-use vapes and e-cigarettes, just like they’re concerned about the single-use plastic packaging in which those products (and countless others) are sold,” said Brett Nadrich, spokesperson for Break Free From Plastic, a global coalition of anti-plastic organizations.
“It’s important for people to remember that plastic never breaks down in the environment.”
A survey by the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit antismoking group, found more than two-thirds of disposable e-cigarette users between the ages of 15 and 24 threw the devices out in the trash in 2022.
Another 13 percent of e-cigarette users dropped the devices into regular recycling bins, 8 percent sent them to an electronic recycling facility and 9 percent threw them on the ground, according to the survey.
Amid that ongoing waste, an analysis from the CDC Foundation found 321.4 million units of e-cigarette products were sold in the U.S. last year.
“No producer should put a product on the market that does not have an end-of-life plan,” said Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the National Stewardship Action Council.
“Otherwise, they externalize the costs onto the environment and to local governments.”
The Hill has reached out to e-cigarette brands Puff Bar, Vuse, SMOK, and Juul for comment.
Research shows the creation of plastic is a harmful process to the environment. The process requires the use of oil and natural gas and results in the emission of millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.
Plastic pieces themselves emit greenhouse gases as they slowly break down, according to the World Economic Forum.
And those tossed on the ground pose a threat to wildlife and waterways.
When products with hard plastic are thrown away, they are exposed to elements like heat, wind, rain, sand, soil, and pressure that cause the material to break down in size while never biodegrading.
“Many hard plastic materials just break down into smaller and smaller plastic fragments that can become microplastic particles,” explained Jeremiah Mock, an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who researches tobacco use.
“These particles enter food webs and can move up food chains,” he added.
While the consequences of ingesting microplastics on wildlife and people are not fully understood, Mock noted research shows exposure to the chemicals found in many microplastics can lead to cancer in humans.
There is also research that suggests microplastics in the ocean can harm some wildlife’s metabolic rate and ability to successfully reproduce. They could interfere with the ocean’s role in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well.
In addition to the plastic waste, environmental experts are also worried about the toxic materials in vapes and e-cigarettes, like nicotine, which could seep out of the devices once thrown away, an EPA spokesperson said.
Experts are fearful about the electronic waste that comes with the products, too.
Vapes use either rechargeable or disposable lithium-ion batteries to heat the liquid the user then inhales. Those batteries could start structural, brush, or forest fires, damaging wildlife habitats and contributing to air pollution, Mock said.
One EPA report found lithium metal and lithium-ion batteries caused more than 240 fires in garbage trucks and waste facilities between 2013 and 2020, with most of those batteries coming from devices like cellphones, laptops, and e-cigarettes.
Lithium-ion batteries have sparked at least 400 fires in New York City alone in the past four years. And several of those fires have caused severe damage and resulted in people being harmed or killed.
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Janice is a full-time mom who likes to write on a range of topics in her spare time. She specializes in the Home, Garden, and Recycling topics. Janice is our Lifestyle and positive vibe expert. She keeps the office running.