The issue of disposable vapes is an ever-increasing concern. On the streets of many cities around Ireland, and indeed the world, and even the hedgerows of rural areas, colourful Elf Bars and Lost Marys are scattered like hundreds and thousands on a childhood birthday cake.
Vaping has become almost omnipresent. It is difficult to walk anywhere without being enfolded in the sickly sweet scent of watermelon or cotton candy vapours. While vaping was once heralded as a way for people to gradually give up smoking, it seems that increasingly people who do not smoke often or at all are now using vapes daily. The sweet flavours and innocuous packaging attract many under 18s also, even though it’s illegal.
The nature of disposable vapes means that they are, well, disposable. So why has the disposing of them been largely ignored? Vapes are not only made from plastic, which can be recycled easily enough, they also contain lithium components in their batteries; this is where the main issue arises. Batteries have to be recycled separately by Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Ireland, and these facilities are not as widely present as regular general waste bins. This has led to high levels of improper disposal of vapes, even when one does have the decency not to litter.
If batteries are not recycled properly, there is a huge increase in fire hazards. Lithium is classified as a critical resource by the EU and US as large amounts need to be mined to produce electric vehicles. The production of disposable vapes can be viewed as an improper usage of an important resource. Research commissioned by Material Focus discovered that over one million vapes are thrown away per week in the UK. If disposable vapes had a charging port and were able to be refilled, they would be able to be reused up to 300 times, so the lithium that is going into the vapes is not being fully exhausted.
It is easy to complain about the damage disposable vapes are having on the environment, it is not so easy to do something about it. That’s what makes Vape Box, a student-led social enterprise which aims to increase the proper disposal of single-use vapes, all the more impressive. I spoke with Lucy Daly, who co-founded Vape Box with Katelyn Davis, about their experience setting up Vape Box, their recent partnership with Electric Picnic, and where they see Vape Box going in the future.
What is Vape box and how did it begin?
It’s an incentivised recycling platform for single use vapes. So we have a recycling box and then you scan a QR code when you deposit a vape into it and then it adds points onto your account in our app (which will also show where there are available boxes), which you can then redeem for rewards…. That’s the part we’re building on now as we go into Fresher’s week. Our main goal now is getting the boxes out to the accessible areas where people would be vaping, so like bars and colleges. You can recycle vapes but you’ve to go out to a recycling centre, which people aren’t really doing.
What was the motivation behind setting up Vape Box?
We would go out together and we saw the amount of waste they were generating and we started asking are these actually recyclable? And we discovered they were.
How are they recycled?
So we have our [fireproof] boxes and they get collected by WEEE Ireland, and they send them to KLM metals in Tullamore where they get separated and sorted and then the batteries are sent to Germany where they get broken down and sorted into their components and reused for other things… It’s not ideal, air miles wise. Hopefully in the future a processing centre will be set up closer, maybe in the UK.
I’m curious, are there any other initiatives that are doing something similar in Ireland?
A lot of the vape stores will do a “take back” scheme, so if you buy one vape you can give back a vape. The problem is, when we were surveying people, if you’re on a night out you’ve to keep it with you and bring it in the next time you go to vape store, you also have to be going to a proper shop and not just a newsagent or vending machine, and you also have to be buying another one.
I saw that you trialled the Vape box on campus in Trinity. How did that go?
Yeah, so we just have one box at the moment in the [Pavillion Bar] in Trinity. It’s done quite well, we’ve got about 500 vapes back in it over the last couple of weeks. Our plan is to have more boxes around campus over freshers week and we’ll also have them in DCU, TUD and Queen’s University Belfast… Queen’s reached out to us actually, so we said why not? So we’re going about contacting all the different student unions at the moment.
I mean, what’s to lose? Is there much cost involved in maintaining them?
No, it’s pretty easy to maintain, since we have a partnership with WEEE Ireland, they collect them and then it’s just monitoring them. We also plan to have student ambassadors in each college. We need to monitor what goes into them, because we’re worried if we put them in a smoking area people might put a lit cigarette in, which would obviously be a fire hazard.
How did the partnership go with Electric Picnic? It looked like a success from your social media.
That was really good, we were a little bit worried because there was a ban on disposable vapes so we were concerned people weren’t going to engage with us at all, but we got back over 1000 (1078) vapes, which we were really happy with.
I think it’s a pretty sensible decision by Electric Picnic organisers to acknowledge that people will still be vaping even if there is a ban in place.
We were in talks with the head of sustainability for Festival Republic (one of the organisers) and they seemed to be somewhat aware that even if they’re banned, people will still bring in whatever they want at the end of the day.
What is your stance on outright bans of single use vapes?
I don’t really think it’s the right way to go about it for two reasons. Firstly, from a psychological point of view, sometimes when you ban things it just makes people want to do it more. Secondly, you’ll just get people shipping them in from Amazon or whatever and selling them themselves, which means there’d be no regulations on them and also nothing making people recycle them. If the government bans them they can kind of say “oh well, it’s not our problem anymore”.
What do you think the government can do to counteract the environmental, and health, costs as well?
Being a bit stricter maybe, on the vape companies and people importing them and ensuring that they actually follow the battery recycling legislation. So you have to recycle 45% of the batteries, that’s meant to be the standard. Also just raising awareness; I think it was something like 20% of the 125 people we surveyed at the beginning that actually knew they could be recycled.
Why are people using single use vapes instead of reusable ones?
I think it’s because quite a large proportion of people using them are “social smokers”, so they go for drinks, buy a vape and then just throw it in a black bin or bring it home… The amount of people who have a huge collection of single-use vapes under their beds is crazy! Also some people said that if they were to buy a rechargeable one it would make them a “real smoker”, if they’ve invested in it.
The aesthetic seems to play a big part; the single use vapes are quite cute and colourful, whereas the reusable ones don’t look quite as harmless?
Exactly! Yeah, they’re quite big and chunky.
Where do you see Vape Box going over the next couple of years? Are you hoping to stick with it or is it more of a university project?
We’re going to stick with it as long as there’s a need for it. We want to get more college campuses and bars and nightclubs on board. We are part of the Trinity Enactus team along with another group, which is like a social enterprise competition. In June we won the national final, so in October we’ll be representing Ireland at the world final in Utrecht.
Congratulations! What can come from winning the competition?
Well, if we were to win overall, 50,000 euros [between the two Trinity projects] in funding, which would be really good. We are hoping to get a lot of connections and help from people in similar sectors because it draws judges from all over the world and supporters from a lot of environmental causes because it’s based on the sustainable development goals.
Lucy Daly and Katelyn Davis will present their social enterprise Vape Box at the Enactus World Cup in Utrecht from the 17th – 20th October. You can follow them @thevaperedemption project to find out more. Sign up to their app on their website www.thevaperedemptionproject.com where you can locate Vape Boxes and claim rewards.