I’ve been pondering a question for a while: Are e-cigarettes better for the environment than traditional cigarettes? I’ve certainly seen some companies make such claims. But, in the long run, I think most people are more concerned with the overall health and cost benefits. But I still think the question of how bad for Mother Earth ecigs really are is a valid thing to explore.
Much like the health question I posed last week, this comparison needs to be made against the product which e-cigarettes are designed to replace. So for starters, let’s take a look at the environmental impacts of the ol’ coffin nails.
Cigarette litter environmental problems
Oddly enough, for the purposes of looking at the drawbacks of smoking, I’m going to lean on a publication with prohibitionist tendencies. The BMJ recently took the extraordinary step of banning publication of all articles funded by tobacco or e-cigarette industry types. Regardless, if I want to find dirt on tobacco, that’s probably a good starting point.
The article in question is looking at whether toxins leak from butts into the environment, so take that with a grain of salt is I guess what I’m saying. The article is essentially cover for more restrictive smoking bans. Anyway, here’s some more relevant stuff:
- Typical street litter is composed of 25-50% cigarette butts
- Cigarette butts still do contain some amount of the same stuff that’s in cigarettes
- Someone has to clean them up which requires money and resources
Here’s some more fun facts and figures from a tobacco control group in California:
Worldwide, it is estimated that 1.69 billion pounds of cigarette butts end up as waste each year. 910 A study conducted by the California Department of Transportation found that cigarette butts make up 34 percent of the total waste captured in California.11
The production of cigarettes is very damaging to the environment. It is estimated that one tree is consumed for every 300 cigarettes produced – that’s one tree for every one and a half cartons.12 Considering 5.6 trillion cigarettes are produced annually worldwide, tobacco devours about 18.6 billion trees every year.13
Smoking poses a direct threat to our forests, homes and parks.12 Discarded cigarette butts have been linked to large wildfires, resulting in the destruction of wildlife, vegetation and property.14 Cigarette-induced fires claim hundreds of lives in California each year, not to mention the millions of dollars in property damage.
California spends $41 million annually on waste clean up.15 Cigarette butts make up 34 percent of the total waste captured in California.14 A 2009 study on the impact of tobacco waste in San Francisco streets found that tobacco waste accounted for 25 percent of all litter. It was estimated that cigarette butt waste clean up costs San Francisco approximately $7.4 million annually.16 Soon after the results were released, San Francisco enacted a cigarette clean up fee which is used to cleanup butts from streets, tourist venues and storm drains.
Ok, so let’s just agree that cigarette butt litter is clearly an environmental problem and I haven’t even touched the topic of toxic chemicals leaching into waterways. You get the idea.
Great! So e-cigarettes are totally better for the environment
Not so fast there, Johnny. Sure, e-cigarettes don’t have butts, and there’s a lot less of them around as compared to single-use cigarettes. That’s not to say there’s nothing the industry needs to do in order to improve the environmental friendliness of vaping.
First of all, there apparently are butt-like issues in some locations anyway. In fact, there has been the occasional problem with motorists getting a flat tire caused by a discarded cartomizer or disposable e-cigarette.
How people can be that inconsiderate baffles the mind, but it does point there’s a real lack of recycling programs for e-cigarettes. This is especially troublesome considering the biggest slice of the e-cigarette market comes from gas station disposables.
That’s not to say there aren’t programs in place. Blu has recycling information on their pack, or at least they did when I did my review back in the day. I believe nJoy will give you a free ecig for every so many you return for recycling. The problem with that is it takes some effort to send stuff in for recycling. Even if there was a bin at every place that sells e-cigarettes to recycle stuff, there still probably would be people who didn’t recycle.
Don’t think I’m picking on disposables here. All e-cigarettes have batteries. Batteries eventually die, so even non-disposable models will need to have batteries disposed. Recycling programs wildly vary depending on the merchant (I suspect most of the smaller players don’t have one.)
Clearly the industry needs to work on more robust recycling programs to offset some impact, particularly those of batteries.
If you’ve been paying attention and doing a tally in your head, it’s still clear electronic cigarettes are more environmentally friendly than the traditional variety. Even straight-up numbers reveal that they can’t possibly be worse than cigarettes (this sounds familiar.) The crappiest disposable in the world will still be worth several cigarettes. So, even if everyone tossed their disposables out the window like some inconsiderate lug, there would still be far fewer e-cigarettes than cigarette butts littering up streets and beaches.
Of course, very few people likely are so inconsiderate. At the very least it’s safe to assume most discarded e-cigarette products make it into a landfill if nothing else. Granted putting a battery in a landfill is a bad idea, but it eliminates the excessive clean up costs associated with butts.
I think it’s safe to say e-cigarettes are considerably more environmentally friendly than traditional cigarettes. With more robust recycling programs in place, e-cigarettes have the potential to be a very clean technology altogether.
This article is one of many in the e-Cig 101 series. View other installments of eCig 101.