E-cigarettes: just more e-waste or an opportunity to educate electronics consumers?
On most models a LED gives a fancy visual feedback (more elaborate models even boast an LCD display to indicate the number of vapour puffs taken, the daily intake of nicotine, then smartphone Apps help users manage their consumption).
All these components driven by a microcontroller form the electronic part of the e-cigarette, and this won’t just end-up in smoke. Now, each e-cigarette brings its little contribution to the global pile of electronic waste which according to StEP’s figures (Solving the E-Waste Problem Initiative), could jump 33% by 2017 to 65.4 million tonnes annually.
Of course, e-cigarettes only represent a small percentage of this e-waste (the bulk being made up of discarded TVs, computer monitors, mobile phones of all sorts…), yet, like any other such electronic appliances, it contains hazardous substances that if not recycled, could end up leaking into landfills, eventually contaminating soil and water.
In Europe, the debates are raging about the actual health benefits (for the smokers and their associated clusters of passive smokers) and the EU’s recent “tobacco products directive” to become effective in 2016 will include electronic cigarettes, now considered as a “tobacco related product”. Officially, it is to do with the level of nicotine in the refillable cartridges and the imitation of tobacco taste, but then the tobacco industry, the e-cigarette manufacturers and the pharmaceutical industry are all lobbying to have a say and maintain their exclusive right to sell this toxic product.
E-cigarette vendors claim these products are just harmless consumer electronic devices that should not be regulated. Tobacco companies fear the new competition and want to maintain their legal monopoly and exclusive distribution channels (French courts recently ruled in favour or a tobacconist who claimed the nearby shop selling e-cigarettes was unfair competition since e-cigarettes should be considered as tobacco products), and pharmaceutical companies want to put e-cigarettes in the same lot as nicotine patches (which they would prefer to sell instead since they manufacture those).
Other health concerns shared by various medical bodies around the world include the fact that a number of known carcinogens and toxins have been identified in e-cigarette vapour from mainstream vendors, as well as metal nanoparticles (coming from the solder). As a striking statement, Michael Bloomberg signed a law on his last day as the mayor of New York, expanding the city’s ban on indoor smoking to include electronic cigarettes.
Some e-cigarettes are rechargeable (with a rechargeable battery and refillable cartridges for the flavoured vapour), others are sold as disposable, which is pretty worrying, considering the bad habit that most smokers have to throw traditional cigarette butts just anywhere (these nicotine and tar-filled butts end up into the environment, washed from the gutters into rivers, lakes and the ocean, eventually poisoning the entire food chain).
Now you could argue for ever on the actual health benefits for smokers and passive smokers, but there is a true opportunity to raise e-waste awareness through all existing e-cigarette distribution channels, regardless of who wins the rights to intoxicate us.
Except the mandatory electronic waste disposal symbol that is applied on the external packaging, few manufacturers really want to educate their customers with regard to how they should dispose of their electronic butts. Maybe the sheer volume of e-cigarettes being sold (and consequently the incremental e-waste issue, will force governments to educate electronic consumers a bit more while expanding their e-recycling strategies with more collection points put into place.
This would naturally benefit all other “disposable” battery-operated gadgets that often only integrate electronics for the sake of featuring a blinking LED or making funny sounds, and which unlike bulkier electronic appliances, are too often disposed-off improperly. The circuits for actually recycling e-waste still lack transparency, another story altogether, far beyond the collection points which only represent the first step.