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Let's Be Honest, Episode 32: E-cigarettes vs. The Environment

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable and the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!

Nicotine has always been one of the most widespread drugs. But with the introduction of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) and vaping as a popular alternative to combustible cigarettes, especially for adolescents, we might keep an eye on not just the possible health hazards, but also the environmental consequences at hand.

Selling Point of E-cigarettes

How do e-cigarettes work? By using a lithium battery to heat up nicotine-containing liquid, electronic cigarettes create an aerosol. This aerosol is then inhaled into lungs [1]. The cartridge of an e-cigarette is where the liquid is held, often with flavouring and other additives as well. The liquid is heated up by an atomiser. The body of an e-cigarette also includes a battery that powers the device. Different e-cigarette brands produce different kinds of designs for their devices, but the contents and mechanics of them are practically the same.

Let's look at the statistics. In various European and North American countries, e-cigarette use has risen significantly. In the UK, the percentage of adults who use e-cigarettes increased from 1.7% in 2012 to 7.1% in 2019, while smoking rates decreased from 19.6 to 14.7% during the same period [2]. Between less than 0.2% and more than 7% of people in European Union countries vape. In Europe, the e-cigarette market has been steadily growing over the past few years, generating an estimated 8.3 billion U.S. dollars in 2020 [3]. In the same year, the size of the electronic cigarette and vape market in the U.S. reached 6 billion dollars [4].

The market's expansion can be linked to people becoming more aware of less harmful tobacco alternatives. The same addictive nicotine that is present in tobacco cigarettes will be delivered by these complex mechanical devices, but without the negative health effects of tobacco smoke. A number of factors make e-cigarettes more desirable than conventional cigarettes, including price, flavour variety, accessibility, and use and impact of social media. E-cigarette users, including both adults and teenagers, have various perceptions about them. The former group might be using them because of the revolutionary sense of style of the device, while the latter may want to stop smoking traditional/combustible cigarettes (c-cigarettes) by converting to e-cigarettes. The fact that e-cigarettes are a relatively new phenomenon means that there isn't much long-term research that can pinpoint potential health hazards from e-cigarette use. There is evidence, however, that adolescent use of tobacco products is influenced by marketing and advertising of traditional tobacco products like cigarettes. Additionally, researchers have discovered that young people are more prone to use e-cigarettes than older people who are not exposed to the commercials.

The Environmental Harm

Conventional cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, which takes around 12 years to biodegrade [5]. Regular cigarette butts account for roughly 38% of trash globally. E-cigarettes are thus unquestionably more environmentally friendly than traditional cigarettes. But, that does not mean that e-cigarettes are out of the woods when it comes to waste. When thinking about the environmental impact of e-cigarettes, we must consider two key attributes - the plastic exterior of the device and the hazardous contents of it.

E-cigarette pods, or cartridges, are another example of a single-use plastic item that is non-biodegradable. According to the product website of JUUL, one of the leading e-cigarette brands, each pod contains 200 puffs, or roughly the equivalent of 20 cigarettes' worth of nicotine [6]. After emptied out, they are not meant to be reused. The company further states on their website that pods can be thrown away in a regular trash bin despite not having created a recycling program for their products. What is more, a good share of these devices end up as litter, not even making it into the trash can. This proposes a quite significant issue, since the use of e-cigarettes continues to spread, and with the habit being considered addictive, the consumer's waste continues enlarges.

But the thing is, vaping devices shouldn't be just thrown away. A circuit board is incorporated in a vaporiser, just like it is in a phone. Thus, both polymers and heavy metals like lead and mercury are involved. Additionally, the disposable cartridges aren't safe either, particularly if any vaping liquid is still inside. It can contain dangerous chemicals in addition to nicotine. If improperly discarded, the vaporiser can leak the heavy metals, battery acid, and nicotine into the groundwater and soil, where they can eventually find their way into the lives and bodies of animals and plants [7]. E-cigarettes can be classified as both e-waste and biohazard waste because they contain a combination of heavy metals and residual nicotine.

Most experts agree that the best way to dispose of electronic cigarette cartridges is to take out the filler material, rinse it under running water until all nicotine residues are gone, and then wrap it in a scrap of biodegradable material. To seal the cartridge, use its original plug after rinsing. Only then the empty e-cigarette device can be disposed of as any other plastic.

As for the lithium battery of the device, it is vital to discard them safely to decrease the risk of recycle-truck fires. Lithium ion batteries must be thoroughly depleted, cooled, and then immersed in cold saltwater for two weeks whilst also being covered firmly with a lid, then wrapped in newspaper and thrown in the trash. Luckily, some e-cigarette manufacturers offer recycling programs to save the hassle.

One last disadvantage of vaping to mention - vaping inside degrades the indoor air quality. Compared to standard cigarettes, e-cigarettes do not produce smoke, they release vapour into the air. But unlike what most people think, this "vapour" isn't just clean water vapour [8]. Instead, the "vapour" contains chemicals like nicotine that can cause cancer. Studies reveal that the vapour's components have revealed ultrafine particles that are more concentrated than those in cigarette smoke. Propylene glycol, a particular compound found in e-cigarettes, is chemically altered when heated, producing propylene oxide, a carcinogen. These particles have the potential to aggravate respiratory conditions like asthma and even narrow blood vessels, which may result in a heart attack. Indoors, where the air is concentrated, the quality of it worsens.

To Reflect

Even though swapping regular cigarettes for vaping seems beneficial for personal reasons, convenience and for environment's sake, there is more to it than meets the eye. While the practice is relatively new, the research on the degrees of which effects of e-cigarette use can be damaging for physical health and environment is still ongoing. But one thing is for sure, just as with any device that contains lithium batteries and toxic ingredients, it is crucial that the disposal of these devices should be properly managed.

Author: Liva Puka

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  1. How An E-cigarette Works | Know The Risks

  2. Estimation of the Global Number of E-cigarette Users in 2020 | Harm Reduction Journal

  3. Revenue in the E-cigarette Market in Europe from 2012 to 2025 | Statista

  4. U.S. E-cigarette & Vape Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Product (Disposable, Rechargeable), By Component (E-liquid, Vape Mod), By Distribution Channel, And Segment Forecasts, 2021 - 2028

  5. Do E-cigarettes Require Hazardous Waste Management? | Hazardous Waste Experts

  6. 3 Ways JUUL Harms the Environment | Truth Initiative

  7. Vapes Aren't Just Hurting You, They Are Hurting The Environment | BC Heights

  8. Vaping Indoors: How E-cigarettes Affect Indoor Air Quality | Indoor Doctor