04 May 2024

Abertay researchers lead push for global reform of single-use electronics

Academic letter co-authored by top enviromental scientists calls for reform of disposable vape industry

Abertay academics have called for global action to tackle the environmental harms posed by single-use electronics such as disposable vapes.

PhD student Laura Young, and lecturers Dr Rebecca Wade and Professor David Lavallee, are among a team of academics behind a publication in the journal Science which calls for reform in the disposable electronics industry.

They were joined by academics from the University of Dundee, the University of Plymouth and University College London in a global call to action in the face of “fast tech”, highlighting the environmental dangers of single-use electronic devices.

The academics argue that the production and disposal of products such as vapes - and other electronics such as mini-fans, single-use headphones and decorative lights - do not align with environmental goals.

UK sales of disposable vapes quadrupled between 2022 and 2023. Some 5 million a week were thrown away by consumers in 2023, according to research by the electrical recycling group Material Focus.

While the products are marketed as recyclable, there is no infrastructure to support this, and they are sold without clear recycling instructions.

Single-use electronics such as disposable vapes contain valuable and potentially hazardous materials such as lithium, a valuable element which is used in the production of electric vehicle batteries.

In the Science article, the academics call for a global push to bring about change within the disposable electronics industry – arguing that these products are contributing to environmental degradation.

Laura Young, an environmental scientist and climate activist who spearheaded the campaign for a ban on disposable vapes in the UK, said:

Right now, we have a narrow and rapidly closing window of opportunity to address the e-waste crisis. Throwaway electronics have entered the mainstream, the prime example being the rise and prevalence of disposable vapes. These small electronic devices promote the casual disposability of precious Earth materials and the creation of excessive amounts of e-waste. Legislative action, most notably the UK Government's commitment to ban disposable vapes, begins to address this, however action beyond a product-by-product, country-by-country approach is required. Therefore, we must now leverage past successes in waste reduction on a global scale, to tackle this crisis before it consumes us.

They point to the success of the recent campaign to curb the use of plastic bags as a template for change and suggest the premise of single-use electronics should be questioned “at its core”.

Dr Rebecca Wade, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, added:

In our letter we state that ‘the premise of disposal electronics should be questioned at its core’. This is a critical cross-sector agenda. As soon as we take a step back from the commercial opportunities and so-called convenience of disposal tech we see the problems writ-large. They range from obvious short-term issues such as littering and the associated harm to the environment and wildlife, to refuse management and long-term issues of global resource depletion. Our planet, our societies and the future of our technological industries cannot afford to squander our precious resources in single-use products.

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