Vapes - Polluting Our Rivers

Help put a stop to vape pollution in the River Kennet

Our volunteers are seeing a new form of pollution in our rivers, disposable vapes. 20 were found during just a half day litter pick recently on the riverbed of the Kennet in Marlborough.

One of our volunteers has been investigating just how harmful these devices could be to the environment by taking them apart*. He found a whole host of environmentally damaging and dangerous components including plastics, electronics, toxic chemicals, and heavy metals.

Lithium leaking from the batteries is a particular concern. Our volunteer found that the vapes he tested still had battery life and the nicotine and other chemicals were not used up when they were discarded. Here we have a rechargeable cell which could easily be reused hundreds of times with virtually no loss in performance. But it is used only once and has been manufactured in a way that it it’s termed a Single Use Cell. That really is very wasteful!

The plastic casings of vapes will blight our rivers for many years before eventually breaking down into micro-plastics, that pollute the river and are posing yet another threat to water quality. Aquatic wildlife ingest micro-plastics which are then entering the food chain. 

The River Kennet is one of only 260 chalk streams in the world, and home to critically endangered species like the European eel. Most of the river is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), but despite this the river is already suffering from a multitude of pressures, including sewage pollution, agricultural runoff pollution, road surface runoff pollution, abstraction and climate change. We are very concerned about the impact of additional contamination from vapes on the unique and fragile chalk stream ecosystem.


The rise of pollution from vapes

The number of disposable vapes thrown away in the UK has soared from 1.3 million to nearly five million per week. This is equivalent to eight per second being thrown away – almost four times the number since research was first conducted just one year ago by Material Focus

The use of vapes is dramatically increasing amongst children and young people especially. A recent survey by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) found that one in six children had tried vaping – with more than half of young vapers saying they usually used disposable vapes
[ii]. Awareness is rising of the health risks of vaping for children and young people, but the risks of environmental damage are also significant.

Discarded vapes are increasingly being found by our volunteers at the bottom of the river when we are carrying out habitat improvements, with a notable increase in stretches of the river that are open to the public.

Our findings are backed up by survey results from Material Focus - 8% of 16-18 year-old vapers said they dropped single use vapes on the ground and 1% of all those surveyed flushed them down the toilet

One reason for the high levels of irresponsible disposal could be the lack of awareness about recycling. Another problem is that they are difficult to genuinely recycle – as they contain lots of components, they have to be taken apart by hand to be recycled. It is questionable as to at what scale genuine management and recycling of vapes is happening.

How you can help

ARK are, along with many other environmental organisations and individuals calling for disposable vapes to be banned. There is simply no need for them and the environmental damage they cause is completely unnecessary.

In December 2023 we asked you to lend your voice and respond to the government consultation on youth vaping
. This consultation is now closed and we await a decision. ARK responded that we supported a ban on disposable vapes.

More ways to help:

  • If you use single-use vapes switch to using a reusable product – these can be used up to 300 times

  • If you do use single-use vapes recycle them. Consumers should be aware that they can return waste vaping devices, free of charge, to any retail outlet that sells them, when purchasing a new one, or they can be disposed of in the battery area at civic amenity sites. Retailers and distributors are obliged to take back disposable, single-use, rechargeable vape and/or e-cigarette devices. You can find out more here

  • Help raise awareness by sharing this article with your family, friends and community

  • Volunteer with ARK and help rivers in the Kennet and Pang catchments, find out more here
  • Support our work, donate here and/or become a member here 

Vape pollution in our rivers looks set to worsen, but with quick action we can help protect our rivers from this new threat.

*Please do not attempt to take a vape apart yourself as it could be very dangerous without taking the right precautions.