I’ve heard many adults refer to vaping and juuling as the “epidemic of our generation”—a title that has lost its bite in the past year due to the actual pandemic. But the sentiment remains as campaigns across the country continue to crack down on vape usage.
Boston College followed suit by updating its smoking policy as of Aug. 1, 2020 to include vaping on its list of prohibited activities, therefore making it punishable to vape on campus. The University recognizes not only the health risks associated with the carcinogens and toxic chemicals in vapes but also the difficulty associated with quitting, and hopes that students take advantage of the resources necessary to quit.
Regardless of the University’s policy, however, vaping persists. In my personal experience, there has been at least one person with some type of vape at every social gathering I’ve been to, without exception.
I think it is safe to say, at this point, we are all pretty aware of the health effects of vaping. Without getting into minutiae, we know that vaping is just not good for us. And generally, if we know the chemicals in vapes are not good for our own health, then by extension those chemicals cannot be good for the health of plants, animals, micro-organisms, etc. Whether we intend it or not, the chemicals in vaping devices eventually end up interacting with the natural world when we throw them away. The entire industry of vaping is environmentally unfriendly—from manufacturing all the way to disposal.
So, let’s begin with the manufacturing process. As with any product, creating a vape requires a combination of energy and materials. Metals and heavy metals need to be obtained for the battery. The nicotine in vapes is often synthetic, created using solvents like formaldehyde, formic acid, and dichloromethane in multiple rounds of purification, and therefore a resulting multiple rounds of waste are emitted into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, emissions from these manufacturing plants are typically not measured because the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t require plants that do not meet the Toxics Release Inventory to submit reports on their emissions, so we do not even have the full picture of what these emissions look like.
Then there is the process of actually vaping, which is mostly only harmful for the person using the vape, but it never hurts to hear it again. Over 70 percent of what’s inhaled from a vape is eventually exhaled, which poses a problem for indoor spaces because pollutants are not diluted as well as they are in outdoor spaces. Therefore, indoor concentrations of particulate matter from vaping can potentially reach up to 45 times as high as the World Health Organization’s limit for outdoor concentrations.
And finally, there is the problem of what happens to the vaping device after it’s been used. In general, vaping creates a lot of both toxic and plastic waste. Once thrown away, the vape can leak the aforementioned heavy metals, battery acid, and nicotine into the soil and groundwater, eventually making its way into the lives and bodies of animals and plants. The biggest blight of vapes—from an environmental perspective, that is—is that most of them are single-use or disposable, like Juuls and Puff Bars. And because they are most often plastic, their waste will not biodegrade at all. This means that if the founders of BC in 1863 took a hit of a vape and left it on Stokes Lawn (and what an image that is), the traces of plastic and chemicals would still be there. The vape device will eventually deteriorate into the microplastics and chemicals that comprise it, which will make their way out into waterways to pollute them and surrounding wildlife.
This less-explored route of vaping’s environmental effects is not to undermine the campaign against them for the sake of human health, as vaping impacts the people using them the most and I hope that all who need help quitting get the assistance they need.
That being said, I think it is important to shed light on vaping’s environmental effect because it is often overlooked. I think that the disposal of the single-use vape products is particularly overlooked because the subject of vaping is almost boorish—people don’t really casually talk about vaping, much less how to dispose of vapes. Plenty of people who have vapes are underage, and therefore are much more worried about being caught with a vape than how to properly dispose of it.
The fault of not properly disposing of vapes does not all fall on the consumer, though. Vape manufacturers do not give any guidance on how to throw away their product or take accountability for their own waste. Studies show that youth vape users understand that vape waste is bad for the environment, but do not know how to properly dispose of vapes because of the lack of information available. To that end, Green Smoke and Call2Recycle are two companies looking to mitigate the problem of vape waste by offering disposal solutions, and there is more information on disposal available online as well.
At the end of the day, personal choices are personal choices. So, no matter what your personal choice is, I would implore you to consider the environmental consequences of vaping.
Featured Graphic by Olivia Charbonneau/ Heights Editor