State of the Planet

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Tackling E-Cigarettes: One Path Forward in the Fight Against E-Waste Pollution

person in a hoodie with smoke in front of their face
Photo: Yoann Boyer on Unsplash

Mounting evidence over the past decade has signaled to the dangers of e-cigarette use for individual consumers. Recent research also argues that the risks don’t end with the individual. E-waste generated from a host of electronic devices, e-cigarettes included, infiltrates our drinking water and contaminates the air in the communities surrounding disposal sites. The rising threat of e-waste can no longer be ignored. One step in the healing process lies in combatting e-cigarette waste.

Beginning in 2006–2007, electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, rushed the United States market. New brands and models cropped up each successive year, and by 2014, e-cigarettes were even more popular among American youth than traditional cigarettes. In 2022, the CDC reported e-cigarette use among 14.1% of US high school students and 3.3% of US middle school students.

Since the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health was published, we have known definitively that cigarette and tobacco use pose dangerous health risks for individuals. Yet now, six decades later, smoking is regaining its lost traction in a modernized, electronic form.

E-cigarettes contain the addictive substance nicotine, as well as carcinogens that cause cancer. The waste generated by e-cigarettes also produces health concerns for smokers and non-smokers alike.

Many e-cigarettes contain a finite amount of “e-liquid” that eventually runs out, killing the device. Even reusable models still often employ disposable e-liquid cartridges. When e-cigarettes and e-cartridges reach the landfill—or the gutter, when littered haphazardly—hot, humid, and rainy weather erodes their internal and external components, leaking toxic metals and gases, such as lithium, lead, mercury, and bromine. It’s no wonder e-cigarettes sometimes qualify as hazardous waste.

Landfills, older ones in particular, do not always sufficiently restrain leaked toxins. Rainwater penetrates through e-waste, forming leachate, a liquid saturated with toxic components. This leachate can sink deep into soil, contaminating subterranean water reservoirs. We pump this same groundwater for drinking and for growing our food, and in doing so, we damage our bodies.

The NIH informs us that lithium consumption, for example, most commonly upsets the gastrointestinal tract. Sustained consumption can cause confusion and agitation, or in rare cases, more severe symptoms like comas or seizures.

And, just as the EPA regulates lead in paint, so too does the agency attempt to curb lead concentration in soil and water, for lead pollution, especially in younger children, can damage the brain and central nervous systems, leading to lifelong developmental disabilities.

The public health threat of e-waste becomes more sinister in developing countries, into which many high-income countries export their waste. In developing countries, e-waste is often disposed of like non-hazardous forms of landfill—burning and acid baths—releasing heavy metals and other harmful substances in the process. The burden of improper waste handling falls predominantly on communities within the vicinity of disposal sites, presenting yet another harmful example of high-income countries abdicating responsibility for cleaning up their mess.

Advocate organizations like the American Vaping Association latch onto the positive benefits of switching to an electronic smoking device, such as e-cigarettes’ capacity to cut addictions. These organizations fail, however, to register e-cigarettes’ contribution to the growing threat of e-waste.

In March of last year, President Biden ratified the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022, which allows the FDA to more tightly regulate products that contain synthetic nicotine not derived from tobacco. This is a step in the right direction, but it only accounts for e-cigarette product lifetime use, as opposed to waste. Especially for high-income countries that often skirt of the cost of proper disposal, waste remains a central issue.

More and more smoke shops highlighting e-cigarette sales are popping up each day. While e-cigarettes are only one component of the larger e-waste threat, widespread disposal programs would present an opportunity to curb at least a portion of the problem. Let’s not let this opportunity go to waste.

Ian Galinson is a student in Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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