One of the world’s most vape-friendly countries, the United Kingdom, is becoming frostier toward single-use versions of the harm reduction products. The debate, which is mirrored internationally, pits environmental concerns and familiar fears of youth uptake against the specific role of disposables in helping people switch from smoking.
In January, the high-end supermarket chain Waitrose, with over 300 stores around the UK, said it’s “doing the right thing” for public health and the environment by discontinuing sales of all single-use vapes.
Waitrose is the first British supermarket to have taken such a stance. Its commercial director, Charlotte Di Cello, said in a press statement that “selling single-use vapes is not something we could justify given the impact on both the environment and the health of young people.”
The UK has generally embraced vaping. An estimated 4.3 million people here vape. Most formerly smoked—and of the remainder, the large majority currently smoke, indicating they could be on a path to switching entirely.
Young added that the single-use nature of these vapes contributes to large amounts of waste that “end up in landfill and incineration plants.”
But single-use vapes, typically made of plastic, rubber, copper and batteries, raise the issue of environmentally responsible disposal. Recent research by Material Focus, a nonprofit organization focusing on recycling electrical goods, found that 1.3 million single-use vapes are thrown away every week in the UK.
“Throwing away vapes means that we are throwing away some of the most precious materials on our planet,” Scott Butler, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “A key part of the problem is that vapes are advertised as disposable. Producers and retailers need to work together to ensure that they should make people aware that vapes should never be binned and instead be recycled.”
In the UK, vapes are categorized as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), meaning that they should be disposed of at a household recycling center or at the shop where they were purchased. But a recent BBC News article stated that many people are unaware that some of the materials that make up a disposable vape can be recycled.
Laura Young, a climate activist who has been dubbed “The Vape Crusader” in British media for her campaign against disposables, applauded Waitrose’s decision. “Waitrose are sending a clear message that if companies are going to produce a product like this, it has to be one that is ethical,” she told Filter. She added that the single-use nature of these vapes contributes to large amounts of waste that “end up in landfill and incineration plants.”
Some lawmakers and officials are echoing this argument. In January, the Scottish government commissioned an urgent review on disposables and said it would consider a blanket ban on the devices. The previous month, the director for public health for the English city of Liverpool had also called for a ban on the basis of the devices’ environmental impact.
The other main argument against disposables is the notion that their accessibility and marketing attracts young people. Young, who collects littered vapes in her hometown of Dundee, Scotland, said that disposables were being sold in a different way to other nicotine products, and claimed that the “fruity flavors and colored packaging” were enticing youngsters.
This is a familiar argument to American ears. A so-called “youth vaping epidemic” has long been trumpeted by US media and politicians, and used as justification for bans of the flavors that most adults who switch from smoking find preferable or even essential. Youth vaping—the large majority of which was always occasional or experimental use—has declined in the US in recent years. Still, most youth who do vape—according to figures from the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration—opt for disposables.
Then again, research has suggested that if vapes weren’t available, more youth would be smoking instead, and putting themselves at far greater risk.
“Disposables are an easy, low cost, no up-front cost, effective and pleasurable way out of smoking. Making it easy and less intimidating to get started really matters.”
The general disposables debate even divides tobacco harm reduction (THR) advocates and people who vape. In January, Michael Landl, director of the World Vapers Alliance, posted a Twitter poll—obviously unscientific, but with over 500 responses. Slightly more of these THR-oriented voters thought disposables a “bad thing” than a “good thing.”
One of the dissenters was a leading British THR advocate, Clive Bates, who tweeted: “I’m very positive. It is messy, but disposables are an easy, low cost, no up-front cost, effective and pleasurable way out of smoking. Making it easy and less intimidating to get started really matters. It may be messy, but it is the end of smoking. And that is big.”
That gets to the heart of the counter-argument. Many people who haven’t tried vaping are undoubtedly daunted by all the talk of mods, pods, coils and e-liquids among aficionados. The sheer simplicity of a disposable—you pick it up, you inhale—is about as low-barrier as it gets.
Some people who vape—like Jessica Harding, another UK THR advocate, who wrote about her experience for Filter—begin with single-used devices before moving on to products that better meet their needs once they have more confidence. If someone continues to smoke because they don’t initially have a vape they find accessible enough to try, that’s a heavy price to pay.
Accessibility, of course, is also influenced by the venue of sale. “Disposable vapes should only be sold as smoking cessation devices, strictly for adults only, and bought from specialist shops,” Young said.
But some THR advocates argue that supermarkets are a much more accessible venue—including to a person with no particular plans to quit smoking, who might not make the choice to go out of their way to a specialist shop, but whose eye might be caught by vaping products as they pick up groceries.
Neil Mclaren, the UK-based cofounder of Vaping.com, which sells vaping products, told Filter that rather than “doing the right thing,” Waitrose has made a decision that is “actively harmful.”
People who might be open to trying a simple vaping device bought in a convenient setting will now be reaching for a pack of cigarettes instead, he suggested. If so, “an opportunity to make a life-saving public health intervention will have been missed.”
Amid “complicated issues around recycling and the circular economy,” he added, pulling disposables from the shelves is simply “attention-seeking.”
“Anything that makes cigarettes more accessible than the products people are using to stay away from them is plain wrong.”
“If Waitrose cares about harm to individuals as well as the environment, then why ignore cigarettes?” Mclaren asked. “They are the most littered item on the planet and a huge source of pollution in the world’s oceans, and that’s before we even consider that they’re deadly when used as intended.”
“Anything that makes cigarettes more accessible than the products people are using to stay away from them is plain wrong,” he concluded.
Can the two sides of this debate be reconciled? In the case of the entrenched youth-vaping argument, that seems unlikely.
But there could be ways to mitigate environmental concerns without retailers—or governments—resorting to bans, and the harm reduction barriers and potential criminalization these can create.
More effective messaging around recycling—and more places to do it—could be part of the answer. So could the advice and support that many vape shop staff provide, helping first-time vapers to be more confident using non-disposable options.
Another area for improvement would be for manufacturers to adopt more environmentally conscious products and policies.
Speaking to the BBC last year, Elfbar (a company which recently had one of its most popular products removed from some UK supermarkets after they were found to contain illegal quantities of e-liquid) admitted that disposable vapes do pose “environmental implications.” The company said it hoped to address this by introducing recycling boxes for retailers to use to collect its vapes.
Vape Superstore is among the online retailers to have offered a guide to recycling devices on its website. And last year, Riot Labs claimed to have created the “first ever entirely recyclable, carbon-negative disposable vape.”
Such developments may be far from what campaigners like Young find acceptable. But if followed through, scaled up and potentially mandated through regulation, they could help point the way to a more environmentally sustainable future for vaping—a future that might still include some single-use products.