Set of colourful single-use vapes of different shapes on a white background

Disposable vapes: A case for changing our throwaway culture

30 Aug 23 3 minute read

Earlier this year during the course of a single walk through an idyllic Dundee, the environmental campaigner Less Waste Laura found more than 50 disposable vapes strewn in the streets.

Iain Gulland, CEO, Zero Waste Scotland


Iain Gulland

“If we’re going to address the climate crisis and bring an end to the overconsumption that’s pushing our planet beyond breaking point, then we really must do better.” Iain explains why vapes are an example of our throwaway culture in action.

Alas, her experience was not a one-off. Tens of millions of these devices are consumed in Scotland each year and, according to our latest analysis, around 10% of them end up littering our streets.

And it’s no mystery why. One reporter who tried to recycle her disposable vape described the experience as like “falling down a blueberry smoke-filled rabbit hole”.

Most shops that sell these single-use items don’t take them back, and many need to be prised open and disassembled by the user before they can be properly recycled.

The environmental impact of single-use vapes

Upon publishing our report about the environmental impact of single-use vapes, it occurred to me they are a prime example of everything that needs to change if we are serious about ending our contribution to both the climate and biodiversity crises.

We currently operate in a linear economy - where products are built without fully considering their potential longevity, instead leading us to “make, use, dispose” of items once we’re done.

As a consequence, we see litter in our streets and green spaces, and valuable resources being lost forever.

If we’re going to address the climate crisis and bring an end to the overconsumption that’s pushing our planet beyond breaking point, then we really must do better.

Photo of a cardboard box full of disposable vapes collected on a litter pick
Single-use vapes collected for recycling during a litter pick.

Embracing a circular economy

One way we can do this is by embracing a circular economy, where items are designed smartly with their whole life cycle in mind, re-using and repairing to extend their useful life, and then when one phase of their life is deemed over, repairing, re-using, upgrading or remanufacturing to create new products from old.   

For starters, businesses should consider how the products they sell can be reused or recycled.  

Manufacturers should also be looking critically at the materials they use, opting for sustainable or circular resources rather than virgin materials that put unnecessary strain on our planet.

All firms should collaborate with supply chain partners and others to ensure circularity is embedded into all aspects of their enterprise.

Working together to create a sustainable future

It’s important to recognise these are not just hopeful ambitions. We know that our businesses, our entrepreneurs, our scientists and our universities have the capabilities and the expertise to imagine and design new products and systems which could reduce the environmental harm of our throw away society – in many respects they just need the encouragement.    

The Scottish Government has already announced a consultation on the future of single-use vapes, and will soon publish its Circular Economy Route Map, setting out how we can accelerate the journey to net zero and a circular economy.  

And key legislation, such as the Circular Economy Bill, has been laid in Parliament and, if passed, will also help. 

Government policies, regulations and economic incentives will go a long way to shaping the future we want. Increased investment in circular innovation and business support will also be needed to create the right environment for a circular ecosystem to thrive.   

But government alone cannot make all the changes necessary. Businesses and citizens also need to do their part.  

That means making tough decisions about what we all buy, sell and consume, and many products – not least the single-use vape – will need to be either redesigned or dropped entirely to be fit for a more sustainable, circular future.