02 November 2022, Steinach in the German state of Baden-Württemberg: at 11am on this particular Wednesday morning, a fire broke out in the back of a waste collection truck. According to the police, it could have been caused by a device that had been emptied into the lorry from one of the wheelie bins. Fortunately, no-one was injured; the damage caused was estimated to be around 20,000 euros.
While those involved in this particular incident may have ‘got off lightly’, similar fires elsewhere have put lives at risk and caused damage worth hundreds of thousands of euros. The number of fires breaking out in waste collection vehicles and waste treatment plants is growing all the time. The reason: lithium-ion batteries. More and more of these batteries are ending up in the household waste bins, for example, single-use e-cigarettes. A short circuit in their batteries can cause these devices to self-ignite.
These single-use e-cigarettes or vapes not only contain a battery but also toxic substances such as mercury, cadmium and lead.
A high consumption rate: more than five million single-use e-cigarettes every month
Vaping is still a relatively new trend in Germany and – according to many experts – it is unhealthy, nonsensical and bad for the environment. Why? Because these single-use e-cigarettes or vapes not only contain a battery but also toxic substances such as mercury, cadmium and lead. Disposed of incorrectly, these heavy metals can damage the health of humans, animals and plants and seep into the food chain and the environment. And the amount of plastic being wasted to make single-use vapes – most of which are filled with two millilitres of liquid – has environmental and recycling experts shaking their heads in despair.
According to the Bündnis für Tabakfreien Genuss [association for tobacco free smoking], more than five million vapes are imported into Germany every month. These single-use e-cigarettes alone will generate sales of around 230 million euros for the sector. Each one costs between six and ten euros and delivers around 600 puffs, the equivalent of two to three packs of cigarettes. These disposable devices are, therefore, much cheaper than conventional cigarettes.
And, for the most part, they end up where they don’t belong: used e-cigarettes should be handed in to a collection point. Studies carried out in the UK, however, show that more than every second vape is thrown into the household bin. The same is true in Germany where used disposable vapes are thrown – incorrectly – into black bins, recycling bins or street litter bins.
The right way to dispose of e-cigarettes
According to Germany’s Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act [ElektroG], used vapes must be handed in to a collection point that is permitted to accept waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). Such collection points may be retailers or manufacturers who are obliged to take back WEEE free of charge. Local inhabitants can also take their used vapes to their local household waste recycling centre.
In order to make people more aware of how to dispose of their e-waste correctly, the EAR Foundation (a clearing house for WEEE) has launched its “Plan E” campaign with the support of the BMUV [Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection] and the UBA [Federal Environment Agency]. Besides providing information about recycling and the correct collection routes, people visiting this online portal can find out where their local WEEE collection points are located.
Waste management companies are calling for a ban
And there is an urgent need for the raw materials contained in the lithium-ion batteries, for example in the automobile industry. In light of this boom, Germany’s recycling sector is calling for these single-use devices to be banned. “This is an absolute waste of raw materials,” commented Peter Kurth, the head of the industry’s association BDE.
“Politicians have already banned plastic products such as ear buds and straws, so there should be no problem banning these as well.”
The growing trend towards single-use products with batteries has been causing problems for the waste management sector for a long while now – no matter whether it be books or greeting cards containing mini-speakers or disposable vapes. Peter Kurth continued: “We’re having to deal with fires breaking out at recycling plants or waste collection vehicles every few days now.” This problem has only been aggravated by the disposable e-cigarettes.
Having said that, there would appear to be a small ray of hope: China, the motherland of e-cigarettes, is currently in the process of severely curtailing the sale of these products – even if their reasons behind this have nothing to do with the environment or safety. And the European Union is also considering taking such a step by amending its Tobacco Products Directive. Recycling companies, whose plants and vehicles are at risk of going up in flames because of the batteries, will be thanking the politicians for making such a move.
Image credits: image 1: Adobe Stock: YarikL