Disposable Vapes: Environmental Impact

– in Westminster Hall at 4:36 pm on 29th November 2022.

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Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities) 4:36 pm, 29th November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the environmental impact of disposable vapes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Murray, and I am pleased to bring the debate to this chamber. I am here because of a conversation with a young woman called Laura Young. She is a former constituent who recently moved away to study, but I am glad I have kept in touch with her on environmental matters, including this one. Laura is what I would describe as a climate influencer. I am not sure whether that is how she would describe herself, but to me that is a good explanation of what she does. She is a very well informed, influential young woman who is making a measurable difference to our environment. I am glad to work with her on this issue and I am interested in what she is doing more broadly.

Laura explained to me that she had increasingly been finding cast-off disposable vapes when she was out and about. That could be in town centres, when she was walking her dog in Rouken Glen park or wherever she was. As she mentioned this to other people, they reported that they could not believe how many of these cast-off disposable vapes were in their areas, whether urban, rural or coastal. The issue is everywhere and has arrived at speed.

These vaping products can last in the environment for many years, so it is important that we ensure that they are disposed of correctly, rather than thinking that it is fine to leave them on our pavements, in our parks or on our seafronts. The products are made from three key parts: the battery, the pod and the coil. In theory, consumers should dispose of them at household recycling centres or at the shop where they bought the device. That is simply not what happens, and it is not realistic. Who expects people to arrive at their local recycling centre with their finished vapes? Many people are simply unaware of what is meant to happen. It is clear that there is a significant issue that we should deal with. A recent study suggests that more than half are just thrown in the bin.

Because of the conversations that I have had with Laura, I am one of those people who spots these vapes. Wherever I go, I see them lying around on the ground. It is clear that a big chunk of those that do not end up in the bin are just thrown away on the ground. I have spoken to others who agree that once they have become aware of vapes, it is impossible not to see them. I see them in my constituency, in London and everywhere else. The proliferation of this new kind of waste is quickly becoming a reality and a concern.

This is a new thing. To illustrate the changing profile, I understand that Keep Scotland Beautiful and the Marine Conservation Society have this year added the category of disposable vapes to the list of litter that people collect from beaches when they do beach cleans. I have heard of a waste display, which is part of an installation at the V&A in Dundee. It involves waste from beaches, including Carnoustie beach. I basically grew up on that beach, so it feels quite close to home for me. The big display of waste that has been collected by local children shows the sheer number of disposable vapes that are now being found on the seafront, as well as in the other places I have spoken about.

The situation is developing and moving apace. Figures suggest that the number of people vaping in Britain has reached 4.3 million—a record level. It seems that 8.3% of adults in England, Wales and Scotland vape, up from 1.7% a decade ago. According to research by Material Focus, at least 1.3 million disposable vapes are thrown away every week. That is two every second—a huge number. An estimated 13.6 million disposable vapes are bought in Scotland annually.

Given those really big numbers, it matters on a whole host of fronts that we stop to have a serious think about this and a serious discussion about what it means. First, on health—I want to get this issue out of the way right at the beginning—I absolutely support any and all efforts that people are making to stop smoking. It is really important that they are supported and are able to sustain a move away from smoking. I realise that vapes are not part of NHS-supported smoking cessation programmes, but many people use them as part of that journey, and I wish them all the best in their endeavours to stop smoking.

I know it is very hard to stop smoking. I am not an expert on that, but ASHAction on Smoking and Health—is, and it has been clear about several issues in this area. It has pointed towards a range of things that we should be thinking about, including the reality that the production of disposable vapes is a commercial endeavour and that promoting novel products is one clear way that the tobacco industry is reaching out to future generations of potential consumers. It also points out that young people who try vapes are at a much higher risk of nicotine addiction and of later using tobacco. That is a prospect that we all want our children to avoid, knowing that smoking is the direct cause of 16% of all deaths in Scotland. ASH also notes that the World Health Organisation has expressed concern that children who use these products are up to three times more likely to use tobacco products in the future.

Understandably, ASH welcomes the recent publication of the Scottish Government’s consultation on tightening rules on advertising and promoting vaping products as an important step towards protecting the health of children, young people and non-smoking adults in Scotland, and it notes the importance of further action on restricting advertising. That is important, because a survey by YouGov and ASH found that the percentage of children who had tried vaping had risen to 16% by 2022. In August, “STV News” revealed that hundreds of vapes have been confiscated from high school pupils in recent years.

The vaping market as a whole in the UK is worth more than £1 billion a year, and more than half of children who vape say that disposables are their preferred product. The most popular brand is the Chinese product Elf Bar. In July, an investigation by The Observer found Elf Bar flouting rules to promote its products to young people in Britain—for instance, via TikTok influencers. Despite the fact that legally a person has to be over 18 to purchase these products, the reality is that they are easy to get hold of, attractive and brightly coloured, and they have fruity flavours. They are designed to be attractive in a way that young people will be interested in.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. There is no doubt that this is an issue, but vaping has saved thousands of lives in this country. The more we can encourage smokers to move from tobacco on to vaping, the more lives will be saved. I would like to impress on the hon. Lady how important it is in a debate such as this that we do not tarnish the reputation of vaping to the point where we put off smokers from switching over to it, which has to be a positive thing.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because it reinforces one of my earlier points. I absolutely support any and all attempts to stop smoking, and all supports that assist people. That is really important. We all know the harm that tobacco does, but I point the hon. Gentleman to the comments I have cited from bodies such as the World Health Organisation, which has concerns about the road to tobacco.

We need a nuanced approach. For instance, I would be interested in having a further conversation and seeing more research on vapes that are not disposable. I think that is a conversation worth having. I am not here to say that no one should ever use vapes; that is absolutely not my aim. My aim is to look specifically at disposable vapes and ask whether we are travelling down the right path.

We have heard about the number of young people who are vaping and the concerns about the move to tobacco, which the hon. Gentleman and I are both very concerned about because of the health implications. Are we really expecting the same young people to have a disposable vape, use it and then get themselves to a recycling centre, so that they can properly dispose of them? To me, that seems somewhat unlikely, to say the least. It is really important that we try to separate the two issues, because they are both really important, and all discussions about smoking cessation should be serious and taken seriously.

In addition to the disposal of such vapes, which I will come to a little later, we should obviously be concerned by their acquisition and use in the first place. I am really concerned and perplexed—this is perhaps a sign of my age—by reports of younger people who have never smoked but are now vaping. I just do not understand that, because I am not a young person, but I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I would agree that this is not the direction of travel that we want to see. We want people to stop smoking, to be supported to do that, and not to move in a different direction.

As I said, I am not here today to take issue with vaping per se. I would like to see more research into the topic as a whole, but I am suggesting that having far fewer disposable vapes is going to be an immediate necessity, because of the damaging waste that is being created by the use of these devices. Reusable vapes might fill some of the gaps, should that be necessary, but I am really concerned about the environmental impact of the disposable vape industry, and there is a bit of a vacuum where there should be scrutiny on that topic. Regardless of our various views on the issue, we would probably all accept that having a bit of scrutiny would be sensible.

I recently used a written parliamentary question to ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what assessment had been made of the environmental impact of vaping products. The answer was none—no environmental assessment at all. Nobody who has seen the sheer quantity of cast-off disposable vapes will think that is acceptable. I do not think that is okay, and we need to up our game quickly. Disposable vapes are fundamentally electrical items, and they contain precious metals such as lithium. We should know in this day and age that lithium is a critical material for our green transition, but it is simply going to waste in devices that are not being disposed of properly.

Disposable vapes are also another unnecessary single use of plastic, which is a material that, along with the batteries and the nicotine that disposable vapes contain, is hazardous to the environment and wildlife when littered. I have heard numerous reports of pets and wildlife in marine areas being affected by this new type of plastic waste. According to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, if a battery is disposed of incorrectly—remember that almost all of them are disposed of incorrectly—heavy metals might leak into the ground when the battery casing corrodes. That can cause soil and water pollution, and it can endanger wildlife and human health. Again, most of the vapes are disposed of incorrectly, so this is not a theoretical issue.

I am grateful to the UK Vaping Industry Association for getting in touch with me when it learned that I had secured this debate, and it made some valid points about how some people successfully stop smoking via vaping, as we have heard, and I do not take away from that in any way. However, I was a bit disappointed by the argument that under-age concerns are not exclusive to vapes. I agree with that—it is absolutely true—but I do not think that is really the point, and it cannot be the case that we cannot look for urgent action because it could put people off stopping smoking. It cannot be beyond us both to support smoking cessation in a practical and meaningful way, and to stop making such a colossal mess of the planet.

In all of this, there must be a really important role for manufacturers, and the industry as a whole, in pushing forward better ways to operate. They do not need to wait for someone to make them do the right thing; they could do the right thing and do better right now, and I am sure we would all be very grateful. I was surprised to hear comments from the vape manufacturer Riot on a recent BBC Radio 5 Live show. When pressed about the actual rate of recycling of its products, its representative said that it was in fractions of 1%. I absolutely respect the company for taking the time to engage with this discussion, which is really important, but that tiny wee recycling rate is the reality.

That is the crux of the problem, why we are having the debate and why we are seeing all these things lying around. People are simply not recycling them because it is too hard, because they do not know how, and because the things are not ideally set up to be recycled. We have to be realistic about that. We just about need a degree in vape decommissioning to work out what to do, where to go and how to go about it. Dealing properly with what are meant to be disposable items of convenience—that is their unique selling point—is actually a monumental inconvenience to their users. Manufacturers know that, but they seem much more interested in making sales than stopping the obvious waste issues that arise from them.

To get an idea of what we are talking about, at the moment the discarded disposables mean that 10 tonnes of lithium are sent to landfill every year. We must remember that this is a growing market and that those are only the bits that are being sent to landfill, not the bits that are being thrown around the place. That is already at a level equivalent to the lithium batteries inside 1,200 electric vehicles.

Concerns are also growing about what that means more broadly. Some people suggest that the material is likely to contribute to fires at landfill sites, so a range of investigations needs to take place. Indeed, it is no wonder that 18 groups that advocate on environmental and health issues recently wrote an open letter to the UK Government, published by Green Alliance, looking for a ban on disposable vapes. I am grateful to all the organisations, which include Surfers Against Sewage, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Wildlife and Countryside Link and others. It is really important that we look at the matter. We need to very seriously take on board the points those organisations make about the importance of not squandering our precious resources, such as lithium, in such a cavalier and unthinking way.

The organisations are also correct that there is “a huge waste issue” associated with disposable vapes. In Scotland, we are moving towards a circular economy and a waste-free society. We have ambitious targets for recycling, but as part of that, specific guidance on how to recycle vapes is increasingly vital. What will the UK Government do to make the whole process easier? I know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that the UK Government will set out plans for reforming the existing waste electrical and electronic equipment regulations “in due course”. “In due course” needs to come now, because there is a clear and significant environmental impact, there is uncertainty and confusion, and that allows concerted inaction on the issue to take root. What are the UK Government doing to help be part of and drive forward the conversation on how vaping markets are targeting our young people? How are we going to act on plastic waste and pollution and on the failure of any proper recycling strategy for lithium batteries?

Failure to act means we are knowingly causing damage to our environment. It means that precious resources, such as lithium, which are finite and dangerous when disposed of improperly are not being properly managed. The situation has arrived at pace; it has all come upon us quite quickly. However, we need to deal with it in the same way. We need to get a move on and try and work out the best way forward for the planet and the people who use vapes. We either sort the situation out so disposable vapes are really disposable, with proper recycling not only theoretically possible but practically happening, or we get rid of them altogether. None of us can afford for things to carry on as they are.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford 4:53 pm, 29th November 2022

I did not intend to speak so I apologise, Mrs Murray, for catching you unawares and for not informing Kirsten Oswald that I was going to speak. I found her speech fascinating, so I did not want to continuously interrupt it with endless interventions. I do not agree with all her points, but she highlights a general issue with littering and plastic wastage, with everything from pens to phones and so on getting irresponsibly dumped, that then ends up causing pollution. I accept that there is an additional issue with the lithium batteries in vapes and how we deal with that.

Although I do not claim to be an expert in vaping, I argue it is a positive thing to move people away from smoking tobacco and over to vaping. The organisations the hon. Lady mentioned, such as ASH, the British Heart Foundation and Asthma + Lung UK, have all said that it is 95% risk free. That has to be a good thing. Moving people away from tobacco and giving them the option of vaping is a really positive thing that the Government could embrace more than it has previously. We are not bad in this country at promoting vaping, compared with many other countries where, ridiculously, it has been banned. I was slightly concerned by the comment, which the hon. Lady made at the end of her speech, that we should perhaps get rid of some disposable vaping devices. I would wholeheartedly oppose that because, although there is an issue with the disposal of these disposable vaping devices, to put people off vaping and maybe encourage them to go back to smoking would be a retrograde step.

I remember that when I was at school there were children who opted for tobacco, and cigarettes were common when I was growing up in the 1980s. I was one of the smokers behind the bike sheds myself. Although we do not want any children under the age of 18 vaping and we do not want non-smokers vaping, there will always be a forbidden fruit, unfortunately, when it comes to children. If you could have tobacco or vaping as that forbidden fruit, which would you prefer? You would prefer to have neither and I accept that, but vaping is 95% risk free. That is far better than when I was a child in the 1980s and so many children chose to smoke.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

Thinking back to the 1980s—the hon. Gentleman and I must be of a similar vintage—I absolutely recognise what he is saying but I would point him back to what I said earlier about the WHO’s concerns about vaping being a gateway to tobacco for young people. I am taking this from a briefing from ASH so, to reiterate, I absolutely support any and all means of supporting people to stop smoking, but it cannot be that it is only one or the other thing with all the personal and environmental issues that this causes.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

I take her point. I do not have the statistics in front of me, but what I have seen suggests that there is not a great deal of evidence that people go from vaping on to smoking, whereas there is substantial evidence that people go from smoking on to vaping. Vaping is a far more successful way of giving up smoking that the likes of patches and chewing gum. Therefore, from a health perspective, the Government should be encouraging and promoting smokers to move on to vaping because there is far less risk associated with it.

I will draw my comments to a conclusion there. I was not intending to speak at all, but what I do not want to come out of this debate is some kind of demonisation of vaping. I know that is not the hon. Lady’s intention, but I feel that we should be recognising that vaping has its place—a very valuable place—in ensuring that we reduce the number of people dying around the world from tobacco consumption, which we all know is ridiculously dangerous for your health. Vaping has a substantially reduced risk for individuals and therefore we should embrace it. Although there certainly are improvements to be made and I am grateful that the hon. Lady has highlighted those, we should see vaping as a positive thing to help people give up smoking tobacco.

Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment) 4:59 pm, 29th November 2022

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Kirsten Oswald on securing the debate and on raising the issue of the impact of disposable vapes on the environment, which I want to speak about today. As Gareth Johnson mentioned, there are other issues and concerns with vapes, such as those on smoking, but I want to address their environmental impact.

Vapes are cheap and accessible to young people and they cause significant waste problems in the environment. Coloured vapes have now become a fashion accessory for many of our youth. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for ethics and sustainability in fashion—believe it or not—I have heard at first hand that people are now matching their clothes with their vapes. We may not have considered such issues, but it means vapes are just left lying about everywhere.

First, I want to repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire said. I know that the Scottish Government are aiming to reach a zero-waste society. With the circular economy, we have a target of recycling 70% of waste by 2025, exceeding EU targets, and matching EU targets for all plastic packaging to be economically recyclable or reusable by 2030. Scotland is also a signatory to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy global commitment.

Cheap and easy-to-use disposable vapes are booming in popularity and creating a mass waste issue similar to the nurdles we all encountered and now have to deal with. Those vape waste products have now added even more to the national embarrassment of litter on our streets and cycle and canal path networks. They are even being found on mountain paths and forest trails, so people who walk in those places will start to see those things lying about in areas where they would go for their natural weekend away. If they go somewhere to relax, and come across those things, they will get more and more anxious about seeing them lying about.

All of this, in my opinion is, pitiful. Dropping litter is avoidable. In particular, it costs needless amounts of money to collect and clear up the debris from these vape pens and many other single-use products that we just discard. In fact, I might add—I put my right hand up to God and say this with all truthfulness—that when crossing a car park at night I can find my way in the dark now by following the path of the blue lights coming from the vapes. That is a stark reality. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire mentioned earlier, they are becoming visible everywhere. It is worth reiterating the stark figures that my hon. Friend mentioned: 1.3 disposable vapes are thrown away every week, equating to two vapes per second, and, as she has just said, an estimated 13.6 million disposable vapes are bought in Scotland annually. Those are scary statistics to hear.

I ask the Minister to speak with, or, indeed, whether she has spoken with, some of the relevant authorities—the devolved Parliaments, local authorities, regional Mayors, courts, judges and police—to ask if they could agree on a more meaningful deterrent. We could introduce something like an automatic three points on the driving licence of anyone who discards any of those products. I tried to introduce a measure into Parliament on that some years ago, and an awful lot of people congratulated me on the idea, but it did not actually go anywhere—I think we might have had an election in between.

We all recognise that vapes, and all the other disposable products, are causing a lot of damage to our fauna and flora, and that that is seeping into the whole food supply chain. As my hon. Friend said, it is now causing toxic waste to seep into everything around us. It is impacting the already perilous environment in which we live.

Furthermore, ASH Scotland has called for a tightening of vape ads and promotion, following its consultation report. The Association of Directors of Public Health has also called for tighter regulation to ban brightly coloured packaging and for a review of flavours likely to appeal to children. The “e” part of e-cigarettes—more specifically, the battery—is using up valuable minerals, the mining of which has led to water loss, ground destabilisation, biodiversity loss, increased salinity in our rivers, contaminated soil and toxic waste.

This place has the power to change the weaknesses in the law that allow those pitiful practices to continue. Members have made excellent points in their speeches, but I humbly suggest that serious action is needed to hasten a behavioural change to benefit our health, wealth, and wellbeing. That might mean points on driving licences, or that we change the way we advertise these products and tighten up the ads, but whatever we have to do, the Government must take action before it becomes too late, once again. I am very keen to hear from the Minister on the action she is taking to address the issue.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:04 pm, 29th November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and it is good to be in Westminster Hall with colleagues for this important debate. I acknowledge Kirsten Oswald for securing the debate and providing Members from all parties with the opportunity to address our collective responsibility to preserve our planet, protect our environment and leave a world for the next generation.

I gently suggest to Gareth Johnson that he may be on the wrong tack, as new evidence is revealing that vaping is encouraging young people to get into smoking, rather than the other way around. However, before you remind me to do so, Mrs Murray, I will return to the topic in hand of the environmental impact of vapes.

We have heard today about the scourge of waste in our communities increasingly being caused by disposable vapes. We need and expect our Ministers in DEFRA to stand up and be counted. They need to give councils the resources they need to keep our communities clean and safe and I encourage Members to continue to raise this issue in seeking help, change and assistance. I assure them that Labour will act when we form the next Government if Tory Ministers fail to deliver in the coming months.

Thanks to a lost decade of Tory austerity, waste is piling up on high streets and street corners and in our green open spaces. It is being exported to some of the world’s poorest countries, where what was supposed to be recycled material ends up in landfill, polluting our oceans and being shipped back to Britain for us to deal with. That is a very real problem and it requires speedy, comprehensive and properly funded solutions.

Without question, the problems have been made worse by the increasing use of disposable vapes. Members from all parties will know, as I know the Minister does, that many of the agencies that should tackle waste and pollution are underfunded and understaffed. The Environment Agency has struggled to tackle waste crime and to monitor waste exports because of the cuts to its budget and staff numbers, and we all know the impact that austerity has had on local government.

I thank the Wildlife and Countryside Link for its very helpful briefing ahead of the debate, in which it notes that the use of vapes has surged over recent years. Those items are now ubiquitous; they are for sale on every high street and are used by millions on a daily basis. As we have already heard, they are now increasingly to be found littering the natural environment.

Research suggests that half a billion vapes are now purchased every year, with almost a fifth of UK adults having bought a vape that is either single use, rechargeable or rechargeable with a single-use chamber. Further research by Material Focus has found that 37% of people who purchased vapes in the last year bought a disposable vape, and that figure rises to 52% for 18 to 34-year-olds. Wildlife and Countryside Link says that researchers have found that since 2021 there has been more than a sevenfold increase in the proportion of 11 to 17-year-olds in the UK who use disposable vapes.

Material Focus goes on to claim that at least 1.3 million disposable vapes are thrown away every week, which equates, as we have already heard, to two vapes being thrown away every second. Around 1 million of those disposable vapes are not recycled. That is unsustainable and requires action from Ministers. I would be grateful if the Minister could outline, in precise terms, what is being done to tackle the issue.

Last week, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Philip Dunne, agreed with the claim that there is a risk that delay will become the default culture in DEFRA. He highlighted that the targets in the Environment Act 2021 for extended producer responsibility for textiles, fishing gear and packaging, and the deposit return scheme in England are all behind schedule. Furthermore, last week also marked a year of inaction since the Government opened consultations on bans on plastic plates and cutlery, alongside a call for evidence on a wider suite of items that could be restricted, including action on tobacco filters. There is much more to do.

The Minister will know that in England the total volume of aggregate waste increased by 12% between 2010 and 2018. Recycling must outpace the growth in consumption; it really is a simple equation. Despite the new powers on waste targets in the Environment Act 2021, I am afraid that I must remind the House that the Government have delayed the roll-out of important elements of extended producer responsibility, including the scheme administrators and fee modulation.

Actual delivery is running far behind even the relatively modest new proposed targets to reduce residual waste per capita by 50% by 2042 and to raise the current municipal recycling target of 65% by 2035 to between 70% and 75% by 2042. The inadequacies of waste collection and recycling systems mean that used compostable packaging tends to end up in landfill or incineration, or messes up recycling plants.

I do not want to irritate the Minister, but I want to talk about the Welsh Labour Government, because Wales has long been a standout performer in the United Kingdom on recycling rates and tackling waste pollution. The Welsh Labour Government’s £1 billion investment in household recycling since devolution has helped recycling rates to catapult from just 4.8% in 1998 to over 65% in 2021. If the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire has come to the Chamber today hoping to find solutions to tackling vaping waste in her constituency, I urge her to look to Wales. Like her, I asked the Secretary of State whether he had made an assessment of the impact of single-use vapes on waste levels in England. I received the following response from the Minister, which said:

“The Department has not undertaken an assessment of the environmental impact of disposable vapes in the UK, including on waste levels.”

I gently say to her that that is a disappointing response.

As the Minister winds up, I hope that I can get some answers to the following questions. Has she made an assessment of the environmental impact of disposable vapes in the UK, including on waste levels, since 24 October? What discussions have taken place with the Treasury and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about ensuring that councils have the resources needed to tackle waste pollution? Finally, what lessons have been picked up from the Welsh Labour and Scottish and Northern Irish Governments about their approach to tackling toxic waste, fly-tipping and waste pollution? I would be happy for the Minister to respond to me in writing, but I ask her for answers to those specific questions. This has been an interesting debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire for securing it.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:11 pm, 29th November 2022

It is a delight to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mrs Murray. I thank Kirsten Oswald for bringing the important matter of disposable vapes to our attention, and thank other Members who have taken part in the debate. This area has probably not been covered in Parliament so far and is, as has been said, a new and growing concern for the environment. I was particularly saddened to hear the comments about disposable vapes turning up on beaches; that was backed up by John Mc Nally, who remembered the plastic nurdles that we talked about when we were both on the Environmental Audit Committee. It is terrible to think that this may be similar.

I took a puff of a disposable vape in preparation for the debate. I am not a smoker at all, and it caused a huge amount of coughing and spluttering—it was raspberry flavoured. I cannot say that it is something that I will take to, but it was important to have a look at some of them and try one.

Before I carry on and tackle the environmental issues, I will touch on the health issue so clearly outlined by my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson. The Government are absolutely committed to making this country smoke-free by 2030, doing more to help adult smokers to quit and to stop people taking up this deadly addiction. We also note that most smokers want to quit, and there is a call to offer vaping as a substitute for smoking. We recognise that vaping is far less harmful than smoking and is an effective device for quitting. One of my officials, briefing me for the debate, shared his experience. He said that he had been a smoker for a lot of his life, starting as a young person, and how useful vapes actually were in transitioning off dangerous nicotine cigarettes. Our recently published “Nicotine vaping in England” report set out the most up-to-date evidence on vapes, providing an even more compelling case for supporting smokers to switch. Our message is clear: if the choice is between smoking and vaping, as pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, choose vaping. Obviously, if the choice is between vaping and fresh air, please choose fresh air.

The Government have two priorities for vaping, which are to maximise the opportunity to help smokers to quit while minimising the uptake by children, because the stats that we have heard on the number of children using vapes are shocking. It is the disposable ones, of course, which they are attracted by. The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire mentioned the Geek Bar and Elf Bar in particular. They get hooked on those products, which do not come under our waste electrical and electronic equipment register because the companies that produce these brands have not registered as WEEE producers for this compliance year. That is definitely something that the Environment Agency is working on. I will touch more on how we are getting those who import these vapes, many of which are made in China, to pay to join our producer compliance scheme, so that they are part of the collection and recycling scheme. That very much needs attention.

While the public health impacts of vaping as an aid to quit smoking are clear, I share the concerns we have heard today about the environmental impacts of these products, especially of disposable vapes. I welcome the recent report by Material Focus because it shone an important light on some of the environmental concerns that have arisen about the improper disposal of disposable vape products.

According to that study, around 1.3 million disposable vapes are thrown away every week in the UK. We have heard quite a lot of stats, but that is pretty shocking. More than half a billion of all the different types of vapes are bought each month, by 6.4% of the population. It is a huge and growing market. A significant amount of the disposable vapes that are thrown away each week are not being recycled properly and are instead being littered or discarded with residual waste in the bin.

That waste includes a lot of single-use plastics, although there are also refillable vapes, and they contain critical resources. Lithium is one of the most valuable. That lithium is literally going to waste; the single-use vapes being thrown away contain 10 tonnes of lithium per year, the equivalent of 1,200 electric car batteries. That is a huge amount of a critical material that is being thrown away.

The findings of the Material Focus report highlight the importance of ensuring that the vaping sector, its products and those that sell them are fully compliant with the obligations set out under key pieces of waste management legislation, which my Department has responsibility for. I would like to remind Members exactly what those obligations are and what my Department is already doing to assist the vaping sector with understanding those obligations and, most importantly, to increase compliance with them.

All vapes, including disposable vapes, fall within scope of the UK’s waste electrical and electronic equipment regulations, referred to as the WEEE regulations. Although waste policy is devolved, I welcome the extremely close working on the suite of producer responsibility legislation, particularly that which covers waste electricals, between the devolved nations, including Wales, where the shadow Minister, Ruth Jones, resides. DEFRA is working very closely on the issue.

The WEEE regulations require importers and manufacturers of vapes and other electrical equipment to finance the cost of collection and the proper treatment of all equipment that is disposed of via local authority household waste sites and returned to retailers and internet sellers. Producers do that via membership of approved producer compliance schemes. They must be registered with the Environment Agency in England or their partners in the devolved Administrations. I know that a number of producers of vapes are registered, but clearly a great many are not, including Geek Bar and Elf Bar, which I already mentioned.

Retailers and internet sellers of vapes also have important obligations under the WEEE regulations to take back used vapes on supply of new vapes to their customers. In addition, they must also make available information to their customers about how to recycle vapes. Smaller retailers—say, a corner shop that sells all sorts of things and just a few vapes—can opt out of the take-back obligations if they pay into a scheme that supports local authority electricals recycling. Of course, those obligations are not different from those that apply to other electrical products.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

The Minister makes a number of factual points about the regulations and how they apply equally to vapes and to other types of electrical equipment, but the very nature of disposable vapes is so different from that of any other kind of electrical equipment. That is the crux: they are made to be disposable and to be thrown away. The problem is that people throw them away. I am keen to hear from the Minister what will be done, and what assessment will be made, so that we can take some action to stop the environmental harm.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I get the hon. Member’s point, but I was trying to make the point that there are a lot of regulations and obligations in place, so we need to ensure that those work effectively before going on to see what more needs to be done. I will touch on that in a minute.

For example, there are also separate obligations under the Waste Batteries and Accumulators Regulations 2009 that are relevant to the batteries contained in vapes. Businesses selling vapes should be registered as battery producers because, as well as vapes, they are putting the batteries in the vapes on the market. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford effectively asked that we not have a ban on disposable vapes because we need to consider the health aspects of this issue. The Government do not have any immediate plans to ban disposable vapes, but we are concerned by the increasing number of these products and their improper disposal. The primary focus of this debate is the environment, and we need to work constructively with the sector to help businesses understand their obligations and bring them into compliance.

I can report today that my officials have held discussions in recent weeks with the vaping sector to ensure that the sector understands and communicates its members’ obligations in relation to the WEEE regulations, as well as their similar obligations in relation to batteries. Those discussions on regulatory matters will continue with all those working in the vaping sector, and will of course be in accordance with the UK’s commitment to article 5.3 of the World Health Organisation’s framework convention on tobacco control.

My Department has already engaged with the Environment Agency and the Office for Product Safety and Standards, which is the enforcer of the retail take-back obligation. They are putting together a programme to drive up compliance, and are looking at what more can be done. They regulate the producer obligations in England and the UK-wide distributor obligations laid down in the WEEE regulations, and we are working with them on this emerging sector. It is an emerging sector, which is one of the issues: it is growing so fast, like Topsy. I can also report that, as we meet, representatives of the WEEE producer compliance schemes are meeting and discussing what they can do as a sector to proactively encourage producers of all types of vapes to fully meet their obligations under the regulations. We will support their active engagement in any way that we can.

I hope that Members will acknowledge my Department’s efforts so far. It may be that we must continue to strive to ensure compliance with existing environmental obligations before jumping to an outright ban, or anything as dramatic as that. I can also report that we are reviewing the current producer responsibility system for waste electricals and batteries, and plan to publish consultations on both areas next year—I think that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newport West, touched on that. The WEEE regulations were developed when the vaping industry was in its infancy, so it is right that, in undertaking that review, we consider what, if any, changes are needed to that legislation to ensure that the vaping sector plays its part in properly financing the cost of the collection and treatment of the products when they become waste. More generally, the reviews are exploring ways in which we can make it easier for the public to dispose of their unwanted electrical items—including vapes—and how future regulations can better support the circular economy, which all of our waste and resources measures are driving. We have heard a lot about Scotland, but England is equally doing a great deal in this sector, so that we can have a level playing field between the businesses supplying electricals to customers via online sales and those that use more traditional sales and distribution channels. We are also considering similar measures under a parallel review of the UK’s battery regulations.

Littering was touched on; I mention it because disposal vapes are contributing to litter. They get thrown around in our beautiful countryside. Local councils are responsible for keeping their public land clear of litter and refuse, and the role of central Government is to enable and support that work. DEFRA published a litter strategy for England in April 2017, setting out how to deliver a substantial reduction in litter and littering within a generation by focusing on education and awareness, improving enforcement and so forth. It goes to show that all those things are relevant to vapes as well as cigarette filters, which are the most littered item. The tobacco industry is working hard on how to reduce that. Potentially, companies that make vapes should be brought into that thinking as well.

In conclusion, there is an obvious consensus that disposable vapes—and what they may break down into—represent a genuine threat and risk to our environment. I have set out the measures that my Department is already taking to increase the vaping sector’s engagement with the existing environmental legislation. I also have signalled our intention to consider any necessary changes to the WEEE regulations in their forthcoming review to ensure that the vaping sector properly meets its obligations to finance the cost of collection and proper treatment of waste from vape products.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the environmental impact of disposable vapes.

Sitting adjourned.