Just when cigarette smoking was beginning to fade out in much of America, a new habit has come to take its place: vaping. E-cigarettes have taken off across America, especially among young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 20 percent of high school students reported vaping in the last month, compared to 8 percent who used traditional cigarettes. Several of my own friends have switched from cigarettes to vaping, which they see as a healthier and less obtrusive version of their old habit.
A couple of those friends have told me they worry about what happens with their single-use pods once they are done. The plastic parts are (as of now) unrecyclable and tainted with nicotine and toxic metals, which makes them a potential environmental hazard. And just like the cigarettes they replaced, the litter from these pods are now being found on our street corners and parking lots.
Waste from e-cigs is a new problem, but it is no different than many other disposable products that have come onto the market. And there is a powerful, proven solution: requiring those who purchase e-cig pods to put down a small deposit, which they can reclaim when they return the empty pod to a store or manufacturer.
If this idea sounds familiar, you might just live in one of the ten states with a “bottle bill.”
Forty years ago, litter from cans and bottles was ubiquitous in the United States. It was a pervasive environmental issue and an unsightly nuisance. In response, environmentalists and concerned citizens launched campaigns to implement “bottle bills” across the nation – placing a 5 to 10 cent deposit on drink containers that could be retrieved if the user returned them to the store.
Bottle bills made an immediate dent in the litter problem – if people leave nickels and dimes sitting around, someone is sure to pick them up. It was also a boon for recycling. Unlike single-stream recycling and other source-separated programs, Bottle Bills yield both a large, and high quality stream of recyclables. To this day, bottle bills remain among the most effective ways to increase recycling rates, with some states recovering up to 95 percent of their bottles.
What if a similar policy were to be implemented for e-cigs? Not only would it keep toxic chemicals out of our landfills and environment, but mandatory, source-separated recycling can also help build up the recycling market for plastics and other materials.
And there is no need to stop there. What if we extended the principle to all single-use goods - the extensive packaging used to ship products to our door, the bottles that hold our cleaning supplies, takeout containers and utensils, and so on? Placing an explicit price on our waste has been shown to dramatically increase recycling rates, keeping materials out of both our landfills and environment.
Another benefit of deposit laws is that they shift the responsibility of waste disposal from municipalities to the producers and consumers. Germany, for instance, has implemented bottle deposit laws in addition to several other reforms that motivate producers to develop effective recycling systems. Due to these policies, 87 percent of the nation’s garbage now gets recycled or composted – making Germany a world leader in recycling.
As cigarette butts disappear from our streets, we need to ensure that they’re not replaced by plastic e-cig pods. The environmental concerns of the plastic and toxic materials that make up an e-cig warrant the exploration of new systems that can accommodate our changing waste landscape. We need systems and incentives to sort, collect and actually recycle our materials – whether for e-cigs, packaging or other single-use goods. Luckily, deposit laws have the potential to help establish a truly wide-scale and viable recycling system. Across the nation and globe, we’ve seen this policy work to dramatically reduce waste from plastic and glass bottles. Why not try it again?
Photo: Lindsay Fox via Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0.