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UK disposable vape ban: How mandatory plain packaging could impact social and environmental health

#UK disposable vape ban: How mandatory plain packaging could impact social and environmental health

31 Jan 2024 — The UK government has announced a ban on disposable vapes to protect the health of children and combat what it says is an “alarming rise in youth vaping.” The government plans to introduce stringent measures to regulate vape flavors, mandate plain packaging and adjust how vapes are displayed in shops to minimize their appeal to children.

The ban, unveiled by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a school visit recently, follows a consultation initiated by the government last October. The consultation indicated a threefold increase in children using vapes over the past three years, with 9% of 11 to 15-year-olds now reported as users.

Disposable vapes have been identified as a primary driver behind this trend, with their appeal and ease of access contributing to popularity among underage users. The ban aims to curb this accessibility and reduce the allure of vaping products among young people.

Furthermore, the government intends to enact legislation making it illegal to sell tobacco products to individuals born on or after January 1, 2009. The ban on disposable vapes has garnered widespread support from various stakeholders, including health professionals, educators and advocacy groups.

Environment secretary Steve Barclay says: “Not only are disposable vapes often targeted, unacceptably, at children, they also represent a huge and growing stream of hard-to-recycle waste, with nearly five million thrown away every week.”

“This historic announcement will be a powerful tool in support of our efforts to crack down on waste and boost recycling, as well as helping to create the first smoke-free generation.”

old man in a park smoking a vape while a woman and child sit next to himThe October consultation revealed a threefold increase in children in the UK using vapes over the past three years, with 9% of 11 to 15-year-olds now reported as users.Lithium in landfills
Steve Brownett-Gale of pharmaceutical packaging firm Origin shares: “The uptake of vaping by young people has been the primary motivation driving the government to act decisively. But the negative impact that disposable vapes have on the environment is also a cause for concern.”

“Used vapes frequently wind up in landfills because many consumers are unaware of the ramifications of incorrect disposal. These vapes contain lithium-ion batteries, which must be separated from the device before the rest is recycled or discarded. But this rarely seems to happen.”

“According to research, ten thousand kilograms of lithium end up in landfills each year, polluting precious waterways with cobalt and organic solvents. Unfortunately, many consumers might find correct disposal cumbersome and inconvenient since the best way is to take them to a specialist vape shop, arrange for them to be collected by your council, or drop them in a small electrical bin at your local tip,” says Brownett-Gale.

Packaging Insights spoke to Scott Butler, executive director at Material Focus, a UK-based non-profit organization dedicated to environmental research, who told us that the rate of untold ecological impacts associated with single-use vape packaging points to a growing need for ease of recycling.

“It’s the same challenge for anything packaged — having the simplest materials possible. Suppose you did a material analysis of a single-use vape: Within the vape, you’ve got steel, potentially plastic, aluminum, some synthetic absorbent materials, probably four or five different types of plastic, then you’ve got what’s wrapped around it,” he said.

“So you’ve got the question mark: Are our resources being used appropriately, when it comes to a product such as that, which is marketed as disposable, but then also, you’ve got the issue that virtually no solutions for recycling them exist on the market.”

Butler emphasized that while some vape producers claim innovations in recyclability, the lack of accessible recycling options for the public remains a significant challenge.

Reusable vape better than single-use?
The UK government’s decision aligns with its broader efforts to combat smoking-related illnesses, tackle organized crime associated with illicit tobacco trade and promote environmental sustainability. As part of the government’s Swap to Stop scheme, one in five adult smokers in England will have access to a vape kit alongside behavioral support to help them quit the habit and improve health outcomes. woman refilling a reusable vapeAccording to Brownett-Gale, from an environmental perspective, reusable vapes are better at minimizing packaging and battery waste since they are rechargeable and refillable.

“While some concerns have been raised around possible increased relapses by former cigarette smokers and the promotion of an unregulated black market, this stringent crackdown will result in tighter regulations reining in the proliferation of the black market and handing law enforcement the right to dish out on-the-spot fines for shops selling disposable vapes after the ban,” remarks Brownett-Gale.

“Additionally, in his statement, Sunak commented on the importance of maintaining the availability of reusable vapes for adults wishing to quit smoking, quashing concerns of smokers relapsing.”

The UK government shares that five million disposable vapes are thrown away weekly, up from 1.3 million last year. “Over a year, this is equivalent to the lithium batteries of 5,000 electric vehicles.”

According to Brownett-Gale, from an environmental perspective, reusable vapes are better at minimizing packaging and battery waste since they are rechargeable and refillable.

“As the Health Minister, Neil O’Brien, pointed out, disposable vapes are allegedly being marketed at young people, blaming single-use options that are relatively cheap to purchase in bright colors and with many flavors to choose from.”

“E-liquid containers are also a much more responsible option thanks to child-proof caps that comply with ISO 8317, which are hard for young children to open,” concludes Brownett-Gale.

By Radhika Sikaria

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