Environment

The environmental campaigner on a mission to ban disposable vapes

The UK is throwing away nearly 68 million disposable vapes every year

Laura Young (left); Collection of Lost Mary square vapes (right)

Laura Young is a climate activist who has been campaigning against disposable vapes since September. Image: Andrew Cawley and MCR Vape Distro/Flickr

An environmental campaigner from Dundee is fighting to ban disposable vapes after finding them littered across local parks and streets.

Laura Young, a 26-year-old climate activist and environmental scientist, has been using Twitter to kickstart her #BanDisposableVapes campaign. As well as the environmental harm they cause, Young says people simply don’t know how to get rid of them.

She found 55 of the vapes littered across Dundee during an hour-long walk she took last week to raise awareness of the issue

Vapes are classified as Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), and they should be disposed of at a recycling centre which offers collection bins for electrical recycling.

Speaking to The Big Issue, Young said she began her campaign after her dog found a disposable vape on the street and had it in his mouth: “I didn’t really think much of it at the time, and actually I threw it in the bin too. But, every time I went out for a walk after that, I was finding more and more different types of vapes splattered across the road.”

She then fell down a “rabbit hole” to find out more about vapes, what is inside them, their environmental impact, and how many vapes are being thrown away.

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Vaping has been on the rise in recent years, particularly among young people, as people see it as an alternative to smoking. The NHS website states vaping “is less harmful” than smoking and is an effective way to quit smoking.

A report from Action on Smoking and Health said vaping has reached record levels in the UK, finding an estimated 4.3 million people are regular vapers, and many of them use disposable vapes for ease and convenience. 

Young said: “No one’s trying to ban vaping. There is an alternative, which is a reusable one. We just want to get rid of this specific model of products.”

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These disposable vapes, such as Elf Bars and Geek Bars, are available in a wide range of colours and flavours from corner shops and supermarkets. Vapers in the UK are throwing away nearly 68 million disposable vapes each year, which would cover 22 football pitches.

Each vape contains a lithium-based battery, meaning nearly 10 tonnes of lithium are being sent to landfill or waste incinerators each year – enough to make batteries for 1,200 electric cars.

Young said: “We’re living in a time where resources are really precious, and yet, we’re taking millions of things that have batteries in them and electronic components, and throwing them straight into the bin.”

Batteries can also cause fires if they are not correctly disposed of, according to the Environmental Services Association (ESA), with around 250 fires at waste facilities triggered by the careless disposal of lithium-ion batteries between April 2019 and March 2020.

After Young discovered the issue, she began speaking to her MP and other organisations, such as Green Alliance and Keep Scotland Beautiful, who were also concerned about the rise in disposable vape litter. 

In November 2022, an open letter was published by 18 environment and health groups, including Green Alliance, the Marine Conservation Society, the RSPCA, and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, calling for environment secretary Thérèse Coffey and health secretary Steve Barclay to ban disposable vapes

Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, previously said: “We need to be moving towards durable and reusable products designed sustainably, not inventing new ways to cause harm to the wildlife and wasting valuable resources. Ministers must act swiftly to ban disposable vapes to protect young people and our environment from this new and entirely avoidable threat.”  

Until a ban happens, Young believes “more education” is needed to teach people not to litter in general and show them how to throw away their vapes properly. She added: “Retailers have an obligation to provide a collection bin for the vapes so people can drop them off easily, in the same way supermarkets have battery bins.”

Waitrose has become the first supermarket to announce it will stop the sale of single-use vapes, with commercial director Charlotte Di Cello saying the decision was made “given the impact on both the environment and the health of young people”.

The Irish government is also looking to ban the sale of disposable vapes, following a formal public consultation, as minister of state Ossian Smyth told RTE News they are “making the world a worse place.” 

The UK government has not made any moves to ban disposable vapes.

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