Updated: Sep 22
It is well known that smoking is terrible for our health, it’s been advertised as such for decades now. But the industry is having a comeback, rejuvenated in an exciting new way. Smokers are dying out, quite literally. But in places like the UK and US, something is taking grip of the young in the place of smoking - vaping. What we don’t know is the long-term health problems associated with vaping. Even more shrouded in mystery and greenwashing, is the environmental effects of this new industry.
While not well known, good old fashioned cigarette butts contain plastic in the form of cellulose acetate, as well as some heavy metals and other nasties. The more environmentally minded will also know that cigarette butts are the most prolific form of plastic litter in existence, with around 6 trillion discarded each year. In the marine and freshwater environment, cigarette butts cause significant harm. It is common to find cigarette butts inside dead sea birds, turtles, fish, and dolphins. These butts take around 10 years to degrade into microplastics and enter the environment. As the butts break down into microplastics, the heavy metals and chemicals that they contain can dissolve more easily into the marine environment and have been shown to be lethal to a wide range of marine species.
However, each year the number of smokers is decreasing, and in 2022 the global number reached below 20% of the global population. With continued smoking deterrent measures being enacted across the world, this number will only decrease. In the news this week, Mexico announced a total ban on smoking in public, marking a massive societal and cultural shift being undertaken.
Now for the bad news. Although there are fewer and fewer smokers with each year that passes, a new generation of tobacco consumers has been created, not only that, it’s growing.
When considering the environmental impact of vapes, it is not just the tobacco that must be accounted for. The most popular vapes today are single use, and include sturdy non-recyclable plastic construction, along with metal parts including a lithium battery. Think about that, single use lithium, the very metal that we need desperately for laptops, electric cars, phones, tablets etc. We are currently deciding whether ploughing the seabed in the deep ocean, destroying so much marine life is worth it for polymetallic nodules composed largely of Lithium. 150 million disposable vapes are discarded in the US each year, amounting to enough lithium to provide batteries for roughly 6000 electric cars. In the UK, 10 tons of lithium end up in landfill each year.
The nicotine in vapes, as well as traditional cigarettes, drive an environmentally ruinous system from beginning to end. The whole industry is estimated to emit over 84 million tons of CO₂ per year, this is comparable to that of a smaller country. Additionally, the water required to grow the tobacco is the same as the entire UK’s household water use each year. The tobacco growing industry is responsible for around 5% of global deforestation.
As more is learned about the negative health effects of vapes, hopefully they will go the way of the cigarette. Losing popularity over time. However, with all the resources being used to produce them, and the huge environmental costs associated with their use, we must try to reduce their use and popularity as quickly as possible.