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Home News Unsafe disposal of single use vapes spark surge in blazes: study

Unsafe disposal of single use vapes spark surge in blazes: study

July 18, 2023

Photo: iStock

Three disposable vapes are being binned incorrectly every second in the UK, causing a surge in fires in council refuse trucks and waste processing plants, a new study has shown.

Research released by public sector insurer Zurich Municipal found that 78 per cent of the 138 million single use vapes sold in the UK are dumped in general waste, instead of being recycled. It means more than two million single use vapes are thrown away improperly every week.

Last year, a report by Material Focus found 1.3 million vapes of all types are discarded every week.

The study has also revealed widespread consumer confusion over the correct way to dispose of spent vapes, with three out of four (72%) users unaware the devices cannot be binned in household waste or recycling.  As a result, 107 million disposable vapes a year are ending up in the general waste stream, where they are being blamed for a sharp rise in fires.

Zurich Municipal has called for the government to launch a fully funded kerbside collection service for electrical waste and a national campaign to raise awareness of how to safely dispose of vapes.

“Laid end to end, the number of disposable vapes discarded incorrectly in the UK every week would circle all 117 miles of the M25.This highlights the huge and growing scale of vape waste local authorities are grappling with,” Alix Bedford, a risk expert at Zurich Municipal, said.

“While councils have long battled the nuisance of cigarette litter, single use vapes are emerging as an altogether more complex and hazardous problem. Flammable lithium batteries inside vapes pose a hidden danger to waste and recycling workers and are causing costly damage and disruption to waste management services.

“With house fires sparked by disposable and rechargeable vapes also on the rise, the government must take a lead in driving consumer awareness to curbt his growing threat.”

As per the Freedom of Information data obtained by Zurich Municipal, the number of bin lorries hit by blazes has leapt 62 per cent in the last two years. Fire crews in the UK were called to 125 fires in 2022, up from just 77 in 2020.  The data shows house fires sparked by vapes have also more than doubled in two years from 59 in 2020 to 123 in 2022.

Despite the potential fire hazards posed by vapes, three out of four (70%) users are unaware the devices contain lithium batteries. A further two thirds (63%) do not realise the batteries can combust if they are damaged or crushed, the study found.

Commenting, Charlie Pugsley, London Fire Brigade’s Assistant Commissioner for Fire Safety, said: “Compared to the number of fires we see caused by cigarettes, vaping could be seen as a much safer option.

“However, we are concerned that there are often cases where vapes have been disposed of and the batteries have short-circuited and caused a fire. Vapes must be disposed of carefully as there is a very real potential of them starting a serious fire.

“If you are using vaping products, it’s vital you only use the charger it was supplied with and never overcharge it.”

Phil Clark, National Fire Chiefs Council, Emerging technologies Lead, added: “Fires caused by lithium batteries can be prevented by the correct disposal of everyday products like vapes. These fires can be serious incidents which can put firefighters and staff working in waste and recycling centres at risk of harm.

“NFCC would welcome more consumer messaging. Further work to make the disposal of these products easy and accessible would be a great support to the prevention advice fire and rescue services share with their communities.”

Single use vapes, which last around 600 puffs, can be discarded at household recycling centres or at retailers that sell the devices or other electrical items.

However, a majority of the 1,000 vape users surveyed by Zurich Municipal said they typically binned disposable vapes in household waste (41%), street bins (28%), household recycling (27%) and at work (20%).  Just 15 per cent said they use a local authority recycling site while only 13 per cent returned used vapes to retailers. Just 15 per cent of consumers knew larger stores that sell small electrical items – such as supermarkets –offer take back schemes for vapes and other items that contain lithium batteries.

With e-cigarettes containing 0.15g of lithium, it means more than 16 tonnes of the rare metal is ending up in landfill or incinerators each year – enough to build batteries for 2,000 electric cars.

Half (48%) of vape users backed a campaign to raise public awareness of the proper ways to dispose of single use vapes.  Some 42 per cent of consumers felt vape packaging does not contain enough information on safe ways to dispose of the devices.

Bedford said: “A lack of consumer knowledge around the safe disposal of vapes is putting lives and property at risk. The government should launch a national consumer campaign to raise awareness of the correct way to dispose of vapes, and other items powered by lithium batteries. As the prevalence of lithium batteries grows, ministers should also explore a fully funded kerbside collection service for waste electricals, including vapes.”

Zurich also called for the government to create a separate category for vapes under Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) recycling regulations, to ensure vapes can be collected and recycled in a safe way.