One of the major triumphs that has come about with the advent and popularity of vaping has been the cleaner lifestyle people can enjoy after they have kicked the analogs. So long went the butts, smell, ash, and fire of smokes. In its place vapers have discovered a new source for their habit which has benefited former smokers and non-smokers alike in their everyday lives. However, as with any new product, this burgeoning industry has far and wide-ranging effects that everyday consumers may never have never considered. While free from ash, smoke, and cigarette butts, electronic cigarettes are driven by a continuous flow of new products that depend on Chinese manufacturing (and its standards), lithium ion batteries (and electricity generation), and computer chips that can contain rare and toxic elements. The entire industry is moving along at a tremendous pace using many more resources than cigarettes ever did. So this begs the question: are e-cigs safe for the environment? Let’s breakdown the many aspects of this industry to get a better sense of what effect it is having, and what we can do as vapers who are concerned with an alternative to a habit that was never very clean.
All electronic cigarettes depend on the manufacturing of devices and e-liquid. While e-liquid is often a domestic product and is consumed entirely, most devices are manufactured overseas and contain plastics, printed circuit boards, lithium ion batteries, glass, metals, and paints that have a short shelf life before being discarded. Nearly all manufacturers are in China and located in a single industrial park in Shenzhen. In that small area, over 600 manufacturers produce electronic cigarettes, but most vapers cannot name more than ten top brands like Aspire, Innokin, Smok, Kangertech, Joyetech, and eLeaf (I couldn’t even think of any more). The reputable manufactures adhere to the RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) and CE (European Conformity) standards, but what does that mean? RoHS standards prevent the use use of ten proven harmful chemicals in the manufacture of a product. These are—
- Lead (Pb)
- Mercury (Hg)
- Cadmium (Cd)
- Hexavalent chromium (Cr6+)
- Polybrominated biphenyls (PBB)
- Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE)
- Bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)
- Butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP)
- Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
- Diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP)
While this does limit the use of these materials in the device’s manufacturing, it is not followed by every manufacturer (many of other other 590 I couldn’t name), although it does covers each individual component of the device. One key thing to recognize, however, is that batteries, which are so indispensable to vapers, are not covered by this directive and have no restrictions on hazardous substances. The Wikipedia page on RoHS standards explains it this way:
"As an example, a radio is composed of a case, screws, washers, a circuit board, speakers, etc. The screws, washers, and case may each be made of homogeneous materials, but the other components comprise multiple sub-components of many different types of material. For instance, a circuit board is composed of a bare PCB, ICs, resistors, capacitors, switches, etc. A switch is composed of a case, a lever, a spring, contacts, pins, etc., each of which may be made of different materials. A contact might be composed of a copper strip with a surface coating. A speaker is composed of a permanent magnet, copper wire, paper, etc.
Everything that can be identified as a homogeneous material must meet the limit. So if it turns out that the case was made of plastic with 2,300 ppm (0.23%) PCB used as a flame retardant, then the entire radio would fail the requirements of the directive."
For more about the manufacturers and who they are I suggest reading this article to gain a bit more insight. http://www.electroniccigaretteconsumerreviews.com/e-cigarette-manufacturers-who-are-they-where-are-they/
With the continual outpouring of new devices from manufacturers, it’s easy for vapers to get caught up in the latest and greatest. However, beyond just the hazardous chemicals used in the production of the devices themselves, there is a major issue with those devices that are end of life simply because new devices are produced. Specific numbers are hard to find, but it is well known that China and Shenzen are suffering from industrial pollution of their air and water (sources: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1596367/shenzhen-losing-its-fight-against-pollution-main-rivers ; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6265098.stm), and this pollution is fueled by an ever growing demand for products such as e-cigarettes.
Specific to battery production, some chemicals used in lithium-ion batteries are rare and exist in small amounts mined in China. This process is achieved by mining the lithium-containing dirt and subjecting it to several acid baths, removing the rare materials. “Those rare earths amounted to 0.2 percent of what gets pull out of the ground. The other 99.8 percent-now contaminated with toxic chemicals-is dumped back into the environment” (Wade, 2016). Lithium mining itself takes us to the other side of the world. Over 70% of lithium used in battery production comes from the ABC countries in South America (Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile). According to the Journal of Environment, Science, and Technology (2010, 44 (17), pp 6550–6556) the major environmental burden caused by Li-on battery production is the requirement of copper and aluminum for the production of the anode and the cathode, plus the required cables. Therefore mining in general for materials of all types is a major factor in not only battery production, but production of devices as well. Side effects of mining include erosion, sinkholes, loss of wilderness, and pollution of soil, water, and air by chemicals resulting from the mining and extraction processes.
But all this is complex and daunting. Mining of many different resources is need for almost any product, and is part of a process that has innumerable steps. The same goes for production. All devices require a multitude of parts from all over the world, not to mention the energy needed to fuel the mining and production processes. This leaves vapers, and all consumers really, in a precarious position. Consumption will continue and we are dependent on government agencies to regulate industries to secure safe, environmentally-friendly ways to produce the products consumers demand. What then is a concerned vaper to do? It seems our responsibility on the user-end is to maintain pressure on agencies to uphold such standards, but also to contribute in own way to reduce waste. That brings us to—
##Waste, Recycling, and Reuse:
First, let us look at the waste and pollution caused by traditional cigarettes. Unfortunately we have no frame of reference for electronic cigarettes exclusively when trying to make a one-for-one comparison to cigarettes, but we will get to e-waste in a minute. By one estimate (source: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22229750-200-time-to-kick-cigarette-butts-theyre-toxic-trash/), around two-thirds of the 6 trillion cigarettes smoked every year end up being littered. That amounts to around 750,000 tons, and that doesn’t even count those that are disposed of properly and end up in landfills. And let us consider that these butts are not just non-biodegradable items. Each butt contains the same carcinogens, chemicals, toxins, and tar that the filters are meant to keep out of tobacco smoke (although filters were actually first intended to only keep loose tobacco out). These are then left to leech into whatever place these are, be it the ground water, streams, or ice pack. The article I linked to conducted a rudimentary experiment in which one cigarette butt “soaked in a liter of water for 96 hours leaches out enough toxins to kill half of the fresh or salt water fish exposed to them.” I am no scientist, but from all I’ve seen and read, cigarettes contribute a significant ecological threat from their waste, without even considering the effects of the manufacturing process, carbon contribution, and incidental waste of paper and packing materials.
In the United States, an estimated 70% of heavy metals in landfills come from discarded electronics (source: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/earth-talk-recycling-e-equipment/). Over 3 million tons of e-waste is discarded every year in the United States alone, and much of this waste is simply dumped. However, some does make its way into the recycling system. Electronics contain valuable, and often rare metals, such as copper and gold, in addition to hazardous chemicals. Recycling allows these substances to be recaptured without additional mining, and ensuring that hazardous materials do not end up in a landfill, ideally. Studies indicate that 50-80% of the 300,000 to 400,000 tons (270,000 to 360,000 tonnes) of e-waste is being sent overseas, and that approximately 2 million tons (1.8 million tonnes) per year go to U.S. landfills. It has been noted that much of this e-waste is recycled through environmentally hazardous means. For example, copper wiring is often recaptured by burning the plastic covering off, leaving the copper behind. This has created many infamous e-waste dumping grounds in India, Africa, and other developing countires that are steeped in pollution.
So what about e-cigarettes in particular? Research on this burgeoning industry is scare, but based on an article titled “Hazardous waste status of discarded electronic cigarettes.” the potential for disposable electronic cigarettes to be classified as hazardous waste was investigated. The abstract of this article states “The Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) was performed on 23 disposable e-cigarettes in a preliminary survey of metal leaching. Based on these results, four e-cigarette products were selected for replicate analysis by TCLP and the California Waste Extraction Test (WET). Lead was measured in leachate as high as 50mg/L by WET and 40mg/L by TCLP. Regulatory thresholds were exceeded by two of 15 products tested in total. Therefore, some e-cigarettes would be toxicity characteristic (TC) hazardous waste but a majority would not. When disposed in the unused form, e-cigarettes containing nicotine juice would be commercial chemical products (CCP) and would, in the United States (US), be considered a listed hazardous waste (P075). While household waste is exempt from hazardous waste regulation, there are many instances in which such waste would be subject to regulation. Manufactures and retailers with unused or expired e-cigarettes or nicotine juice solution would be required to manage these as hazardous waste upon disposal. Current regulations and policies regarding the availability of nicotine-containing e-cigarettes worldwide were reviewed. Despite their small size, disposable e-cigarettes are consumed and discarded much more quickly than typical electronics, which may become a growing concern for waste managers.”
So where does this leave vapers? This short article has only begun to scratch the surface of the various threads and comparisons in regarding the environmental impact of vaping compared to cigarettes. While it is a cleaner way for vapers to satisfy their habit, the many factors that come into play from production to end of life is difficult to untangle. However, it seems clear that vaping is not 100% wholesome and vapers can help in their own way to ensure devices that still function continue to be used or given a new home, old devices make their way to responsible recycling centers, and the need to purchase new devices is weighed against the usefulness and effect its production has on our environment.