E-Liquid, Vaping and the Environment
Alongside smoking’s abundant physical health risks, cigarettes are a bane to the environment.
It’s estimated that 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are deposited annually across the world, and of course, these are non-biodegradable and contain toxic chemicals.
But is vaping bad for the environment? How does it compare to the environmental impact of smoking?
In other words: would the planet be better off if the almost 1 billion daily smokers around the world made the switch to vaping?
Smoking and the Environment
As you may expect, the most widely-cited concern when it comes to the effect of smoking on the environment is the widespread littering of spent cigarette butts. They are the most widely-littered item in the world, with an estimated 135 million pounds of cigarette butts being dumped into the U.S. environment alone in 2005. A study from the California Department of Transportation found that they account for 34 percent of the total waste captured in the state, responsible for a substantial proportion of the over $41 million spent annually on waste cleanup.
The butts are primarily composed of cellulose acetate, a plastic that takes a long time to degrade, and they leach chemicals such as lead, arsenic and nicotine into the environment. This is a particular problem for aquatic ecosystems, with the leached chemicals making cigarette butts toxic to fish and freshwater micro-organisms. Butts are also the most commonly found item during the International Coastal Cleanup, an annual event put on by the Ocean Conservancy. It also goes without saying that any residual tobacco also has impacts on the marine environment, and when smoked, cigarettes release tons of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.
Not all smokers toss their butts on the ground, but littering isn’t the whole story when it comes to the environmental impacts of smoking. One tree is destroyed for every 300 cigarettes produced, and with over 5 trillion cigarettes produced each year, this equates to a lot of trees – before you even consider the aluminum foil in and plastic wrap on each pack. There are also a multitude of environmental impacts resulting from the manufacture of cigarettes, including deforestation, transportation costs and the use of pesticides in the growing of tobacco. In a nutshell, smoking is an absolute nightmare for the environment.
Vaping and the Environment
For vaping, things are obviously quite different. There are no butts to dispose of, and only now-outdated models use disposable cartridges, with most using refillable clearomizers or tanks. This means that the core problem of littering is likely to be vastly reduced for every smoker switching to vaping: a consumption (and possible littering of) 20 cigarettes per day is reduced to virtually nothing, although after around a week there will be some waste (and potential litter) due to a spent atomizer head.
Similarly, vaping releases considerably smaller amounts of potentially harmful chemicals into the air, and even a spent cartridge or coil with a still-soaked wick has only nicotine that poses a potential threat to the environment, with the other ingredients (PG, VG and food flavorings) only being toxic in very substantial amounts. Of course, even the small amounts of nicotine present in a still-soaked wick (for around 1/4 of a ml, or less, contained in the soaked wick, a 1.8 % e-liquid would have 4.5 mg of nicotine) would become more and more significant as the number of vapers increases. This could be entirely placed with solid waste, though, and if the amount of remaining nicotine was minimized, the impact would be reduced.
Some of the environmental impacts will ultimately be the same – or at least pretty similar –from vaping and smoking, since the nicotine in e-liquid is still derived from tobacco and the devices still require manufacturing. This means that the deforestation, manufacturing and transportation will affect the environment in much the same way. However, this is pretty much the only area where the risks to the environment are equivalent.
There is one unique consideration for e-cigarettes, though, and that comes from the appropriately-named e-waste. E-cigarettes use lithium-based batteries, and like any batteries and electronic products in general, if disposed of incorrectly they end up on landfills and damage the developing world. E-cigarette batteries are recharged several hundred times before requiring disposal, of course, and although they may contaminate the environment with heavy metals, they can be recycled to minimize any impact.
One study has evaluated e-cigarettes’ potential as hazardous waste, looking specifically at disposable models, and found that the majority (13 of 15 tested) wouldn’t meet the classification. However, due to the nicotine present, unused cartridges (or, of course, liquids) would be classed as hazardous waste, and although relevant regulation doesn’t apply to households, manufacturers will have to ensure responsible disposal of any unused or expired e-liquids. The study also points out – fairly obviously – that disposable devices pose the most risk to the environment.
Overall, though, most of the environmental impacts of cigarettes are not present with e-cigarettes (aside from the possibility of residual nicotine in wicks or juice bottles), and the only unique consideration – the disposal of batteries – can be mitigated against with responsible disposal. It’s clear that if all the smokers in the world switched to vaping, the environment would be much better off, on the whole.
Minimizing the Environmental Impact of Vaping
Although it’s fairly unlikely that vaping will be as harmful to the environment as smoking, ecologically-conscious vapers can do quite a lot to minimize the effect it will have. First off, the best advice is to switch to re-usable components wherever possible, with clearomizers or tanks that use replaceable coils and in particular rebuildable atomizers being a fantastic way to minimize the environmental impact of your vaping.
With tanks and clearomizers, the main body can be cleaned and re-used, and the only waste generated is atomizer heads. These can be rinsed (to remove any residual e-liquid), and then wrapped in a scrap of biodegradable material (or just a piece of paper towel) before disposing of in the trash. If you want to minimize the impact even further, you can disassemble the coil and recycle the plastic and metal housing (after rinsing), meaning only the wick and coil need to be placed in the ordinary trash. For rebuildable atomizers, wicks and coils are the only disposable parts, so there is hardly any waste at all.
E-liquid bottles are either composed of plastic or glass, and of course both can be easily recycled. Again, it’s better to rinse the bottles out to remove any residual e-liquid before placing the bottles in the recycling. Ideally, you should try to get as much e-liquid as possible out of the bottle before disposing of it, too (after all, you paid for it).
For batteries, there are several options for battery recycling, and you can use Call2Recycle’s battery and cell-phone recycling locator to find something suitable in your area. This is the most important part of minimizing the environmental impact of your vaping, so make sure you find a responsible way to dispose of your batteries.
Conclusion – If We’re Responsible, Vaping Can Help Protect the Environment
The key lesson here is that as well as reducing the risk associated with your nicotine addiction, switching to vaping will also almost certainly reduce the damage you’re doing to the environment too. There may be some unavoidable issues with obtaining the nicotine for e-liquid from tobacco and manufacturing devices, but as long as you recycle your used batteries and opt for re-usable components wherever possible, the impact on the environment will be absolutely minimal.
E-Liquid, Vaping and the Environment [Infographic]
- Call2Recycle: Battery and Cellphone Recycling Locations
- EPA: Batteries
- Hazardous waste status of discarded electronic cigarettes (2015) Krause, M. J. and Townsend, T. G.
- Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish (2011) Slaughter, E. et. al.
- Longwood University: Cigarette Butts as Litter – Toxic as Well as Ugly
- TreeHugger: Smoking: Environmental and Social Impacts
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