UK Councils Ramp Up Pressure to Ban Disposable Vapes

    Councils in the United Kingdom have issued a joint call to ban single-use vapes, citing environmental and child safety concerns. It’s the latest big development in a heated national debate, targeting disposables in what’s seen as one of the world’s most vape-friendly countries.

    The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England and Wales, wants a ban on the manufacture and sale of disposables by 2024. According to a statement posted on the LGA website in July, “single use vapes are designed as one unit so batteries cannot be separated from the plastic, making them almost impossible to recycle without going through special treatment.”

    “Disposable vapes are fundamentally flawed in their design and inherently unsustainable.”

    In the statement, Councillor David Fothergill, who chairs the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, said that “disposable vapes are fundamentally flawed in their design and inherently unsustainable products, meaning an outright ban will prove more effective than attempts to recycle more vapes.”

    Research conducted last year by Material Focus, a nonprofit focusing on recycling electrical goods, found that 1.3 million single-use vapes, which include copper, rubber and batteries, were thrown away every week.

    Fothergill stressed that “Councils are not anti-vapes, which are shown to be less harmful than smoking and have a place as a tool to use in smoking cessation.”

    Nonetheless, the LGA echoed anti-vape campaigners in justifying its call as a way to “keep children safe.” Disposables’ “colors, flavors and advertising are appealing to children,” Fothergill said.

    While potential harms (or benefits) of youth vaping are hotly contested, a large proportion of adults who use vapes to quit cigarettes find non-tobacco flavors helpful, or even vital, in doing so. And some people who smoke find disposables a particularly accessible pathway to switching, even if they later move on to more complex vaping systems.

    “Disposable vapes are the easiest entry point for smokers looking to quit through vaping, especially those on lower incomes.”

    “Disposable vapes are the easiest entry point for smokers looking to quit through vaping, especially those on lower incomes, who are proportionally far more likely to die from smoking,” John Dunne, director of the UK Vaping Industry Association, told Filter in response to the LGA statement. Keeping single-use vapes available, he said, will give people who smoke “the best chance of staying alive.”

    Dr. Alex Wodak, a veteran drug policy reform advocate and board member of the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association (ATHRA), acknowledges environmental concerns over disposables, and thinks that many people who vape care about recycling and sustainability.

    He also told Filter that vaping “causes less environmental impact than smoking,” which it typically replaces. He cited “significant” impacts of cigarettes—which researchers have called the world’s most littered item—on land, rivers, beaches and oceans, plus home and forest fires caused by smoking.

    “Nevertheless, we are still obliged to reduce plastic waste,” Wodak said. And “there is a lot of confidence that disposable vapes could be designed to increase recycling.”

    For this to happen, “We need the different stakeholders to work together; designers, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, consumers, waste experts, policymakers, researchers and environmentalists.” Banning disposables is not the solution, he concluded, when there will “always be a demand.”

    Sales of illegal disposables “will be turbo-charged if they are banned.”

    This last point was emphasized by UK charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), when it issued a response to the LGA proposal in July.

    While calling itself “sympathetic” to the ban demand, ASH stated that “Children already find it easy to get hold of illegal vapes, as those selling them have no qualms selling to children.” Illegal vapes, the organization added, have been “found to contain all sorts of toxic chemicals banned in legal products, and there’s no way to ensure they’re properly recycled.” And sales of illegal disposables “will be turbo-charged if they are banned.”

    ASH wants authorities to impose higher taxes on disposables and “force vape companies to ensure they are properly recycled.” But it declared that “the risk of unintended consequences is too great for us to support a ban.”

    According to Dunne, the industry is already taking action to reduce problems caused by disposal of single-use vapes. “We’re growing the number of collection points, working with the waste sector to make recycling easier, and innovating with the product to reduce its environmental impact,” he said.

    Dunne described new products coming to market that contain more cardboard and less plastic, and are designed to be easier to disassemble and recycle.

    But echoing Wodak’s sentiment, he said, “primarily the solution lies with all of us, though; the waste sector have the ability to recycle vapes and there are collection points in stores. We now need to encourage users to make sure their vapes are collected and recycled—not thrown in the street, or even in the bin.”

    France is implementing a disposables ban at the end of 2023, while the European Union is proposing one from 2026.

    Green Wings Project, a nonprofit seeking to promote vape recycling in the UK, found this year that 75 percent of Brits who vape “never” recycle the products they use. This may reflect both a lack of awareness and a need for more accessible recycling facilities.

    UK calls for a disposables ban have been gaining momentum for some time. Lawmakers and officials in Scotland and Liverpool, for example, have supported the idea in the past year.

    In January, high-end supermarket chain Waitrose announced it would pull disposables from its shelves. And Leeds Festival, a large two-day music event in late August, has announced its own ban on disposable vapes (though not on cigarettes). “Refillable vapes will be sold on site,” noted its director.

    As the LGA statement noted, France is implementing a disposables ban at the end of 2023, while the European Union is proposing one from 2026. The group claimed, “there is a risk that as markets close disposable vapes will flood into the UK.”

     


     

    Photograph by SmileSmith25 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Kiran is a tobacco harm reduction fellow for Filter. She is a London-based writer and journalist, who has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, I Paper and the Times, among many others. Her book, I Can Hear the Cuckoo, was published by Gaia in 2023.

      Kiran’s fellowship is supported by an independently administered tobacco harm reduction scholarship from Knowledge-Action-Change—an organization that has separately provided restricted grants and donations to Filter.

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