When I go out litter picking in my town, I pick up all sorts - food wrappers, glass bottles, and once, even an entire cake! But recently, there’s a new type of litter that I see almost every time: disposable vapes, and the packaging they come in. We’re concerned this could be the start of a new litter menace, as the latest figures show an alarming increase in the proportion of people choosing disposable vapes; 52% of young e-cigarette users last year, up from just 8% choosing disposables the year before.
So what impact could carelessly discarded disposable vapes have on animals?
Until I took a littered disposable vape home and carefully took it apart, I had no idea exactly what was inside them. As well as the container for the liquid, there’s a heating coil, wires, several different types of plastic and a lithium battery. Batteries are known to cause fires if they’re not disposed of correctly, so they should never be left in the environment like this. While most of us know we should take batteries to collection points, like those in supermarkets, few people realise that vapes are classified as electrical waste and are covered by regulations which require them to be disposed of in particular ways, and definitely NOT in household bins. But according to Materials Focus, over half of single-use vapes are thrown away - that’s around 1.3 million every week.
Deconstructed vape - credit: Laura Young
But it can be very difficult to find recycling points that will take single-use vapes, and they’re often hard to reach. My closest recycling centre is two miles away, which would mean about an hour’s round trip on public transport. You may also be able to take used vapes back to the shop you bought them in, but we know that many shops won’t make this clear to customers.
The other noticeable thing about the vapes I’ve picked up is the strong smell, even long after they’ve been used. The one I took apart still smells strongly of blueberry, over three months since I picked it up. We’re worried that animals could be attracted to the smells and, mistaking them for food, try to bite or swallow them. So far, we’ve heard about a bird in New Zealand who was poisoned and died after swallowing a vape, and we’ve seen pictures of a squirrel in Wales trying to bury a vape. But we know that this will only be the tip of the iceberg as so many litter casualties go unseen and unreported, particularly with wildlife.
It’s not just wildlife we’re concerned about though - pets could also be interested in the smells of littered vapes. We know that dogs in particular have heightened sensitivity to sweet tastes and smells, and they could easily sniff them out on a dog walk. The Veterinary Poisons Information Service has received 680 calls about pets and vape liquids since 2017, and 96% of these were about dogs. They warn that animals which ingest high doses of the nicotine-based liquid could become seriously ill - and sadly, there have been reports of pets dying after consuming liquids from vapes.
So because of the risks they pose to pets, wildlife and the environment, the RSPCA are joining in the call for decision-makers to ban disposable vapes. This ban wouldn’t affect people who use reusable vapes to help them quit smoking, but we’d also like to see much clearer information about recycling on the packaging of these products. And I’ll be keeping an even closer eye out for vapes when I do my litter picks from now on.
Evie Button is a scientific officer in the wildlife department at the RSPCA. Follow @RSPCA_Official
Wildlife and Countryside Link's new briefing on the environmental harms of disposable vapes is available to read here.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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