By Meghan McFarling
Most people could probably assume that commercial tobacco products like cigarettes harm our environment. Cigarettes are commonly found littered on our streets, and the toxic chemicals and tobacco found in these products are seen leaking into our soil and waterways. Therefore, one might think e-cigarettes, or “vapes,” may be better for our environment than cigarettes or other tobacco products. Those who vape may use one disposable vape per day, while those who smoke cigarettes may smoke a pack or two per day. If both of these products were littered, on the surface, it would look like the disposable vape would look like it would cause a lot less harm than a few dozen cigarettes. However, experts believe that this might not be the case; vapes may cause more damage than cigarettes.1 While we don’t know exactly how much more harmful they can be, the extraction of natural resources and the pollution during the manufacturing process, as well as the improper disposal of most vapes, can lead to a much dire environmental impact than we may realize.
The Environmental Impact of the Creation of Vapes
While many environmental sources don’t specifically state this when discussing the environmental impacts of vapes, it’s important to note that nearly all vapes contain lithium.2 Lithium is a naturally-occurring metal used in most batteries, including vape batteries.3 In order to gather lithium, it needs to be mined from brine or hard rock, and doing so can lead to soil degradation, water shortages, and overall damage to our ecosystem.4 Not only is lithium mining highly harmful to the environment and is often done on tribal land in the United States. For example, in Nevada, a new lithium mining project was created in 2021 on a sacred indigenous burial site.5 If lithium for batteries is mined in other countries, there are often fewer environmental regulations, so environmental destruction and unethical labor practices are much more common.6 While batteries are necessary for everyday life in the 21st century, we often don’t know where our batteries come from or how they were produced, especially when it comes to the batteries in vapes. Since most vape companies do not disclose this information to consumers, it’s difficult to determine how much of a negative environmental impact these batteries and vapes are making.
Like most other tobacco products, most vape products get nicotine from tobacco plants. In order to obtain the nicotine from these plants, deforestation occurs so that more tobacco plants can be grown, harvested, cured, and manufactured. In 2015, it was estimated by the World Health Organization that 600 million trees are cut down every year by the tobacco industry.7 This incredible amount of deforestation has led to tremendous loss of natural habitats and food sources for wildlife, which in turn leads to the extinction of various animal species and desertification.8 Deforestation also leads to an increased amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gasses trap heat in our atmosphere, resulting in global warming and climate change.9 Greenhouse gasses also contribute to air pollution and poor air quality10 because when trees are burned to be removed from the land, the carbon stored in the trees turns into carbon dioxide- a greenhouse gas- and releases into the atmosphere.11 It’s estimated that around 10% of greenhouse gas emissions result from deforestation.12
Since most vaping products containing nicotine contain nicotine derived from tobacco plants, these products are contributing to reoccurring deforestation. That being said, some vape industries claim their vapes contain synthetic nicotine- nicotine created in a lab rather than obtained from tobacco leaves- and are better for the environment. However, this is far from the truth. Synthetic nicotine is still nicotine, and all types of nicotine are considered hazardous waste as nicotine damages the environment when disposed of improperly.
While deforestation contributes to an increase in greenhouse gasses, the manufacturing process of tobacco products can also contribute to a rise in greenhouse gasses. Factories, in general, harm the environment with pollutant emissions,13 and the tobacco industry is not taking the initiative to make the manufacturing process eco-friendly. While it’s known that the tobacco industry pollutes the air, uses and pollutes large amounts of water, and uses toxic chemicals in their manufacturing process for cigarettes, little is known about how the manufacturing process of vapes impacts the environment. The fact that we don’t know how bad the manufacturing process of vapes is for our environment is concerning because if we don’t know what the problems are and how significant they are, we cannot adequately address them and resolve them. However, we can assume that the immense amounts of natural resources used in the production of vapes and the toxic chemicals used to create them pose significant threats to our climate and environment.
The Environmental Impact of the Disposal of Vapes
The Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) considers liquid nicotine “acute hazardous waste.”14 This means products containing liquid nicotine cannot be thrown away into the regular trash or recycled without harming the environment and people.15 Vapes are considered hazardous waste for two key reasons: nicotine and battery content.14 Nicotine toxic to humans if consumed or absorbed through the skin or lungs, but it can also poison wildlife and pollute our soil and water.16 Batteries in vapes- and in general- are hazardous waste if not disposed of properly.1 When batteries are littered or improperly disposed of, the batteries corrode and the battery’s metals and chemicals- like lithium- leak into the ground and pollute our soil and water.17 Batteries that are improperly disposed can also cause fires in garbage and recycling trucks and landfills, which can harm people, animals, and our land.17 On top of the fact that batteries can pollute our environment when improperly disposed of, not recycling batteries is a massive waste of lithium and other materials that could be reused. When batteries aren’t recycled, more lithium mining and other forms of mining need to occur to compensate for the materials that have been lost.
While nicotine, batteries, and vapes are technically “hazardous” waste, this doesn’t mean that the other components in vapes aren’t harmful to the environment. Most vapes contain metals, which can take many years to decompose.18 Vapes also have plastic, and plastic never fully decomposes. Rather than decomposing, plastic turns into “microplastics,” or tiny pieces of plastic, which continue to pollute the environment and pollute our food and drinking water.19
Despite everything we know about the harm that tobacco products like vapes cause for our environment, the tobacco industry- which is directly connected to the vaping industry- applies a marketing strategy called “greenwashing” to encourage consumers to use their products and to continue to use their products. They know that being eco-friendly is trendy nowadays, and they’ll do everything they can to convince consumers that their effects aren’t harmful or damaging to the Earth. For example, on Phillip Morris’s website, one of the major tobacco companies a part of Big Tobacco, claims that they have a 2025 climate roadmap, where they state that they want to do things like creating plans for reducing post-consumer waste, become carbon neutral, and promote biodiversity by the year 2025.20 They also state that they want to “purposefully phase out cigarettes” so that they can promote the sale of smoke-free products, AKA vapes.20 Despite all of these claims, however, Big Tobacco has refused to take responsibility for the immense environmental impact that its products have caused. It’s evident that Big Tobacco doesn’t care about the environment when we look at the fact that they are promoting the use of vape products; products that are likely worse for the environment than cigarettes.1 Even the World Health Organization has called out Big Tobacco for greenwashing and called for laws against it.21 Big tobacco has lied to the world for years about many things: they’ve claimed that tobacco products are not harmful to health, they’ve claimed that they never intentionally marketed their deadly products to youth and minority groups, and they’ve broken civil racketeering laws.22 That being said, we cannot fall victim to Big Tobacco’s lies about their “environmentally-friendly” industry.
Vapes harm not only the consumer’s health but also have a detrimental impact on our planet, and few people seem to be aware of this. By raising awareness on this topic, it’s possible that we can prevent environmentally-conscious people from starting to vape, which could have a positive impact on people and our Earth. However, it’s more important that we raise awareness so that we can take collective action and hold Big Tobacco accountable for detrimentally harming our planet. Those who use vapes are not responsible for the harm vapes are causing our world- Big Tobacco is. Their continuous use of harmful manufacturing methods, natural resources, toxic chemicals, and non-compostable materials shows that they only care about the money, not the people’s health or our world. To prevent further climate change and pollution, we must take down Big Tobacco.
About the Author
Meghan McFarling (she/her) is an Association for Nonsmokers-MN intern and former Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids Youth Ambassador. Meghan’s experience includes involvement with passing flavored tobacco restrictions and increasing the tobacco sale age to 21 in Shoreview and at the Minnesota legislature. Meghan didn’t only testify at all these places, she community organized, met with decision makers and followed through in assisting with enforcement and compliance after laws were changed at the local and state level. She is a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse with a degree in political science, and is currently attending the University of Minnesota to pursue an MPH degree. In her free time you will find Meghan training at the gym, listening to podcasts, or advocating for social and environmental justice.
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