Smoking is well known as a huge risk to health but it’s also a problem for the environment. Cigarette butts are the most common item of trash in the world, with billions of them being discarded every day. It’s estimated that more than 850,000 tons of butts are thrown away annually and they’re not biodegradable. They also contain toxins, making them dangerous to wildlife and a source of water pollution.
Many epidemiologists and scientists believe that electronic cigarettes, which are becoming increasingly popular, could massively reduce or even replace smoking over the next few decades. That’s great news for health, but what does it mean for the environment?
Electronic cigarettes are a substitute for real cigarettes, so for every person who switches to them we can expect e-cig waste to replace some butts. The question is whether or not there will be less waste and how dangerous it will be. At first glance it looks very positive; every time someone smokes a cigarette they throw away a butt, but electronic cigarettes don’t work that way. On the other hand the waste they do create includes batteries, and some of the parts can be contaminated with nicotine, so there are questions.
Some electronic cigarettes are disposable; they come with a preloaded cartridge of nicotine solution and a built-in battery, and last for about a day. This creates a smaller volume of waste than smoking but there is a battery in there. A positive sign is that one company has already created an incentivized scheme for users; if you return ten used vaporizers they send you a new one. If other manufacturers adopted similar schemes this could almost eliminate waste for disposables.
Actually recycling them means removing the batteries and processing the other materials used. This is mostly steel and plastic, so they can be recycled by standard methods just like any other small electronic device. Unless they’re simply thrown away or find their way into the water supply the nicotine shouldn’t be an issue, as it’s not highly concentrated and would be removed during recycling anyway.
Other electronic cigarettes use a rechargeable battery that can be fitted with disposable cartridges. Users normally dispose of a cartridge every day or so; again these contain nicotine, as well as some small metal parts and a plastic body. Normally they go into general waste and are landfilled. This could create some nicotine seepage into the water table. The cartridges could be recycled but are quite complex. From a recycling point of view it would be best if users were encouraged to switch to refillable devices.
Refillables have a rechargeable or replaceable battery, plus a tank that holds the liquid. The tank can be refilled, and contains a heating coil that can be swapped for a new one when it burns out. This minimizes the amount of discarded waste; a week’s worth of cigarette butts can be replaced with an inch of silica wick and a short length of wire. This waste is contaminated with nicotine but the quantities are extremely small. The rest of the device can have a very long life, and because these are mostly metal can be recycled as normal. The only remaining issue is the batteries which can be disposed of through normal battery recycling programs.
Electronic cigarettes do have some challenges, but these are minor – especially with refillables, which seem to the most environmentally efficient option. If analysts are correct and they seriously reduce smoking that will be good for the environment too.