Prohibition of the sale and supply of single-use vapes: strategic environmental assessment - environmental report

The strategic environmental assessment environmental report for the proposed prohibition of the sale and supply of single-use vapes.

2 Introduction

2.1 Background

Vapes (also known as e-cigarettes) have increased in popularity in recent years, becoming more mainstream products.[9] In Scotland, the use of nicotine vapour products increased from 7% in 2019 to 10% in 2022.[10] This is also confirmed by data collected for the Smoking Toolkit Study which shows the use of nicotine products increased from 7.3% in Oct 2020 vs 9.5% in Oct 2023.[11] Specifically, usage of single-use vapes has increased, growing from 0.1 % to 4.9 % between January 2021 to August 2023 across the UK.[12]

Vapes can be a helpful tool to support smokers to quit, though research into the safety and effectiveness of e-cigarettes is still relatively new [13]. They are considered less harmful than smoking when smokers completely switch to vaping products. As they usually still contain nicotine they are not risk-free, and the long-term health impacts of vaping are unknown[14]. A 2024 Scottish Government briefing also concluded that vaping can cause health harms in non-smokers to which they would not otherwise have been exposed to. More research is required on dual use of both cigarettes and vapes. Data suggest this might pose the same of higher health risks than smoking cigarette alone.[15] They have also increased in prevalence amongst young people[16] and people who haven’t traditionally smoked conventional cigarettes.[17]

An annual survey undertaken in 2023 by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), looks at the smoking status and vaping behaviour amongst vapes users in Great Britain[18]. Findings from this research show that 56% of vape users are ex-smokers, 37% are current smokers and a smaller proportion are people who have never smoked. It also found that around two thirds of vape users’ most popular main device was a reusable vape[19], with 31% mainly using a disposable vape.

However, there has been a sharp increase in the use of single-use vapes in particular. Single-use vapes are defined as products that are not rechargeable (they use a battery which cannot be recharged, or a coil which cannot be replaced, including a coil contained in a single-use cartridge which is not separately available), or are not refillable (once empty, the cartridge or pod cannot be refilled or replaced), or are not rechargeable and not refillable.[20] In contrast, a reusable vape can both be recharged and fully refilled an unlimited number of times by the user, and will last for a longer period of time.

Single-use vapes tend to dominate the casual and beginner entry points of the market. Generalist retailers, including convenience stores, primarily sell single-use products whilst specialist vape stores tend to sell more reusable vapes and refill products. [21] Single-use vapes account for around 50% of the UK vape market. It has been estimated that 60% turnover by the vapes industry is generated from single-use vapes, in comparison to 40% from reusable vapes, refill cartridges and e-liquid.

There has been a surge in popularity in single-use vapes in recent years, especially among young people. The proportion of adults using single-use vapes increased from 0.1 % to 4.9 % between January 2021 to August 2023 across the UK. Last year (2022) a survey by ASH[22] showed that for the first time the most popular type of e-cigarette amongst GB youth was disposable (single use) e-cigarettes, with their use growing more than a 7-fold between 2020 and 2022 from 7.7% to 52%. Growth has continued since last year and 69% of children this year said this was the device they used most frequently.

Vapes should not be used by children, young people or non-smokers and carries an unknown long-term risk of future harm and can be very addictive[23] It is also an offence to sell vapes to anyone under the age of 18 in the UK. Despite the sale of vapes to those under the age of 18 being illegal, the recent Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (Scotland) study reports that 3% of 11-year-olds, 10% of 13-year-olds and 25% of 15-year-olds said they had used a vape in the past 30 days. Purchasing from shops is the most common source. The report also found that there have been increases in current vape use since 2018 for 13-year-old girls (2% to 13%) and larger increases for 15-year-olds (girls 6% to 30% and boys 8% to 20%). They have also increased in prevalence amongst young people and people who haven’t traditionally smoked cigarettes. Recent research suggests poor compliance with the restriction of vape sales to those who are underage.[24] Products are available in a variety of flavours[25] (e.g. various fruit flavours, confectionery, soft drinks, etc.) with attractive packaging[26] which potentially increases the risk for children to find these products appealing. Research also suggests that the majority of vape users under 18 mainly used single-use vapes in 2023[27]. The report highlights that in 2023, 69% of respondents said the most frequently used device was a disposable (single-use) vape. This rate increased up from 52% in 2022 and 7.7% in 2021.

The rise in the use of single-use vapes has led to their increase in the waste stream. There has been growing concern over their environmental impact as they are typically littered or discarded as general waste in a bin rather than recycled. In 2023, it was estimated that almost 5 million single-use vapes were either littered or thrown away in general waste every week in the UK, almost four times as many as in the previous year.[28]

Single-use vapes which are thrown in a bin with general waste will either be landfilled or incinerated, and they also pose a fire risk for waste collection vehicles and waste transfer sites due to their lithium-ion batteries. Compaction during the collection process increases the chances of puncture and combustion, setting fire to dry and flammable waste or household recycling around them. This endangers the public and collection crews, as well as damaging public and private property. It is estimated that lithium-ion batteries are responsible for approximately 48% (over 200) of all waste fires occurring in the UK each year.[29]

When single-use vapes are littered, they introduce plastic, nicotine salts, heavy metals, lead, mercury, and flammable lithium-ion batteries into the natural environment.[30] The chemicals can end up contaminating waterways and soil and can also be toxic and damaging to wildlife. When single-use vapes which have a plastic casing are littered, the plastic can grind down into harmful microplastics. Single-use vapes are primarily littered in public spaces and this generates clean-up costs to local authorities. [31]

Vapes, like other electricals, should not be placed in a general waste bin or littered, and should instead be returned to participating stores or to household waste and recycling centres (HWRCs). Current estimates indicate that across the UK only 17% of vape users correctly dispose of their single-use vapes.[32] In Scotland an estimated 12.8% of single-use vapes are taken back to participating stores, and 8.3% to household waste recycling centres.[33]

Single-use vapes are difficult and expensive to recycle.[34] The only recycling process available in the UK is manual dismantling which is costly and time consuming as most single-use vapes are not designed to be taken apart easily.[35] They are designed as one unit and require specific tools to remove the lithium-ion battery for recycling and careful handling of components to avoid operator exposure to the remaining e-liquid. Of the single-use vapes that are returned to a shop or recycling centre across the UK, it is estimated that only 1% are actually recycled due to limited recycling capacity.[36] The remainder of vapes collected for recycling are likely to be sent to landfill given the Environment Agency’s guidance (applicable across the UK) that single-use vapes should not be incinerated.[37]

Environmental impacts from manufacturing single-use vapes are also a concern. A typical single-use vape contains plastic, copper, cobalt, and a lithium battery. Lithium and cobalt are critical raw materials as noted in the UK’s Critical Raw Materials Strategy[38] which is essential to the production of electronic devices, batteries, and energy generation.[39] The increased demand for single-use vapes leads to an increased demand for these critical raw materials. It is estimated that the total amount of single-use vapes purchased every year contain enough lithium to provide batteries for 5,000 electric vehicles.[40] This is a waste of valuable resources in a product with a short lifespan, that is poorly recycled, and has a reuseable alternative readily available. As well as a loss of resources, there are environmental impacts through raw material extraction, and single-use vape production and manufacturing. Most notably, this includes greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption generated in their manufacture.[41]

2.1.1 Wider policy context

The Scottish Government is committed to moving towards a circular economy, where we move from a "take, make and dispose" model to one where we value materials and keep them in use. Reusable vapes are a readily available alternative to single-use vapes and have a much longer lifespan. They are made from more durable materials and are built to last longer. Although they are initially more expensive[42], reusable vapes are more cost-effective in the long term. Reusable vapes are considered to be less environmentally damaging, as the same vape can be used for an extended period of time compared to single-use vapes. This causes little change in consumer experience while reducing environmental impacts.

The Department of Health and Social Care published a call for evidence on youth vaping in April 2023[43] where the impact of vapes on the environment was a key theme of interest. A summary of responses to this call for evidence was published in October 2023, highlighting many of the key issues in relation to the damaging impact on the environment caused by single-use vapes.[44]

There are measures already in place to ensure responsible production and disposal of vapes. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations 2013[45] aim to encourage the reuse and recycling of these items by placing financial responsibilities on producers and distributors of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) to pay for the collection and disposal schemes for end-of-life products. This means that all producers who place EEE on the UK market, including producers of single-use vapes, are responsible for financing the costs of the collection, treatment, recovery, and environmentally sound disposal of WEEE.

Compliance with the current WEEE regulations by vape producers is estimated to be low. This includes low levels of awareness amongst store owners and distributors for takeback schemes, as well as low levels of customer participation reported.[46]

Plans to reform the producer responsibility system for waste electrical and electronic equipment[47] have recently been consulted on. Proposals under review include the provision of collection infrastructure for household WEEE financed by producers of electrical and electronic equipment; reforms to the take-back obligations that currently apply to distributors; obligations on online marketplaces; and creating a new separate categorisation for vapes to ensure producers of vapes properly finance recycling costs when they become waste. The reported low awareness of producer obligations ought to be addressed by the implementation of these producer responsibility reforms.

A new Vaping Products Duty will be introduced by the UK government in October 2026. A public consultation[48] is underway on this new duty and will close on 29 May 2024. It sets out the proposals for how the duty will be designed and implemented and will be accompanied by a one-off increase in tobacco duties.

2.2 What is Strategic Environmental Assessment?

Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is a statutory requirement under the Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Act 2005[49] (‘the 2005 Act’), to assess the likely significant environmental effects that a public plan, programme, or strategy (PPS) will have on the environment if implemented. The process identifies how adverse environmental effects can be avoided, minimised, reduced or mitigated and how any positive effects can be enhanced. It also allows the public to give their view on the programme and its potential environmental impacts.

SEA comprises the following key stages:

1. Screening – determining whether a Plan/Programme/Strategy (in this instance, the prohibition of the sale and supply of single-use vapes) requires an SEA. The Screening Report was issued to statutory consultees on 23 February 2024.

2. Scoping – establishing the scope and approach of the SEA, including the initial environmental topics to include, the context (a review of other plans, programmes, and strategies and the environmental baseline), and the assessment methodology, with the information presented in a Scoping Report, which is subject to a 5-week consultation. The Scoping Report was issued to statutory consultees on 23 February 2024.

3. Environmental Assessment – identifying, describing, and assessing the likely significant effects of the proposal.

4. Environmental Report – outlining the findings from the environmental assessment, consistent with the requirements of Schedule 3 of the 2005 Act. This report is the Environmental Report.

5. Main consultation – consulting on the draft policy alongside the Environmental Report.

6. Post Adoption Statement (PAS) – producing a statement to outline how the assessment and consultation responses have been considered within the finalised plan. This will be produced once the final version of the policy has been agreed and adopted.

7. Monitoring – monitoring the effects of implementation. This will be an ongoing exercise to determine the impacts of the policy and evaluate its success in achieving its aims.

The SEA approach has been amended where appropriate in response to the comments received from statutory consultees during the consultation period on the combined Screening and Scoping Reports. A summary of the responses received and corresponding actions taken is set out in Appendix A: Addressing Responses from Consultative Authorities.



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