The environmental impact of cigarettes is well documented: For more than 30 years, cigarette butts have been the most collected type of beach litter. Cigarette butts also account for approximately 38% of litter items globally and can take about a decade to biodegrade.

These facts may lead to the idea that electronic cigarettes, commonly known as e-cigarettes, are better for the environment. However, that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, e-cigarettes may be even more detrimental to the environment than their traditional counterparts.

E-cigarettes and vape pens are constructed using a variety of materials, including plastic, metal, and batteries, which heat up vaping juice and aerosolize it. The components in vape pens can’t be recycled and typically end up in landfills. Further, every stage of an e-cigarette’s life cycle poses a potential for environmental harm, from manufacturing to disposal. For that reason, the environmental impact should be included in health policy debates surrounding e-cigarettes.

The environmental conversation surrounding vape pens and e-cigarettes is especially relevant considering the meteoric rise of vaping popularity in recent years. The global e-cigarette market was valued at $11.5 billion in 2018 and is expected to climb. Global citizens need to ensure that we fully grasp the effects that e-cigarettes have on the natural environment in order to implement policy changes to reduce their impact.

The Popularity of E-Cigarettes

Initially touted as a smoking cessation tool, e-cigarettes have become a plague of their own. In fact, Surgeon General Jerome Adams declared that e-cigarette use among young people had reached epidemic proportions as of December 2018.

Data indicates that, among twelfth graders, nicotine vaping increased by nearly 11% between 2017 and 2018. And one of the most popular vaping devices among young people is the Juul, a small rectangular device that is refilled via disposable cartridges called pods. In the summer of 2018 alone, Juul encompassed 68% of the e-cigarette market.

Young people are reportedly attracted to Juul and other vaping devices because the juice is offered in appealing flavors. Vape juice, also known as e-liquid and oil, comes in a wide variety of flavors, from mango and pineapple to cucumber and creme brulee. In an effort to curb vaping among young people, the Food and Drug Administration imposed regulations on flavored Juul pods in late 2018. Flavored pods were removed from brick-and-mortar stores, with sales of those items restricted to Juul’s online shop.

How Vaping Can Affect Your Health

It would be a mistake to call vaping a “safer” alternative to cigarettes.

While we’re still developing an understanding of the environmental impact posed by e-cigarettes, the overall health implications of vaping are more clear. It’s true that e-cigarettes lack the harmful carcinogens found in traditional tobacco smoke, but it would be a mistake to call vaping a “safer” alternative to cigarettes.

Memory and attention can be negatively affected by vaping, and oral health can be significantly impacted as well. Nicotine from vaping may contribute to the development of gingivitis, as well as gum recession and periodontitis. What’s more, nicotine can mask the symptoms of gum disease, making it more difficult to diagnose the condition.

Numerous health conditions have been linked to tobacco use, and more research is needed in order to fully understand if vaping has similar long-term health effects. It is one of the primary causes of erectile dysfunction in men, and it can cause reproductive harm to both men and women. By avoiding smoking and vaping altogether, tobacco-related health conditions can be avoided.

Is Vaping Environmentally Safer than Smoking Cigarettes?

Despite the prevalence of e-cigarettes and the health-related discussions surrounding them, we still don’t have a full grasp of the environmental effects of vaping. In the early days of the e-cigarette boom, researcher Hoshing Chang found available information about the environmental impact of e-cigarettes to be “limited.” He further concluded that no studies through December 2013 “formally evaluated the environmental impacts of the manufacturing process or disposal of components, including batteries.”

Fast forward six years, and there is still a significant need for formal studies on the environmental effects of vaping. While formal and peer-reviewed research on the topic is lacking, we are beginning to develop a stronger picture of the effects that e-cigarette and vape pen waste have on the environment. Vape juice and the devices themselves both stand out as culprits.

Although various types of vape juice exist, including those containing THC and flavored oil with no additional chemicals, the vast majority contain nicotine. As nicotine is essentially a poison, the trace amounts of leftover juice in discarded pods and vape pens may be detrimental to groundwater and animal life. Toxic compounds from cigarette butts, such as nicotine, pesticide residues, and metal, can seep into aquatic ecosystems, threatening fish and other wildlife. It’s safe to assume that nicotine residue from vape pens can have the same effect.

And then there’s a large amount of waste to consider. E-cigarettes present “lingering harms to the environment greater than the products they replace,” according to Yogi H. Hendlin at the University of California, San Francisco. Unfortunately, solutions to the e-cigarette waste problem currently don’t exist. The fact that empty e-cigarettes contain both hazardous waste (in the form of liquid residue) and electronic waste compounds the issue. Recycling may be possible in the future, but that would require the efforts of both vaping companies and public health regulators.

No matter the form, environmental damage is harmful to the entire human population, from veterans to children. We need to prioritize the subject of e-cigarette and vape pen waste in order to combat the negative environmental effects of what is a rapidly growing trend.

Frankie Wallace

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