E-Cigarettes and a New Threat: How to Dispose of Them
By Yogi H. Hendlin
The two largest global brands of capsule coffee, Nespresso and Keurig, are regarded by many as environmental nightmares. Billions of the throwaway nonrecyclable plastic products currently clutter waste dumps, waterways and city streets. Both inventor of the "K-cups" John Sylvan and former Nespresso CEO Jean-Paul Gaillard have publicly bemoaned the environmental consequences of the products they once championed. Sylvan has stated that the disposable (but not biodegradable) coffee capsule is "like a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance."
The comparison between cigarette butts and capsule coffee is surprisingly fitting. Both butts and capsules are intentionally designed to be convenient, single-use products. Both are also nonbiodegradable and unrecyclable. As pervasive and polluting as cigarette butts are, however, the e-waste from e-cigarettes presents an even more apt comparison.
As a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco with a background in environmental philosophy and public health, I became curious how the waste stream of e-cigarettes has passed completely outside the regulatory radar.
A Smoking Gun?
San Francisco's Pax Labs, maker of the market-leading electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) Juul, thinks of its product as a "Nespresso machine, if Nespresso still made great coffee." It also describes its e-cigarette as a "gun."
The product has soared in popularity, particularly among teenagers. In September Dr. Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, called Juul smoking among teens an epidemic.
While the health outcomes for e-cigarette vapor versus an inveterate capsule coffee drinker vary greatly, both "disruptive" products present lingering harms to the environment greater than the products they replace.
The legacy of cigarette butts imparts a dark story. An estimated two-thirds of cigarette butts are littered, clogging sewer drains, blighting city parks and contributing to estimated cleanup costs of US$11 billion yearly for U.S. litter alone. Cigarettes are environmentally irresponsible by design, and yet e-cigarettes pose an environmental threat of considerable proportions. Instead of merely being thrown away, these complex devices present simultaneously a biohazard risk with potential high quantities of leftover or residual nicotine and an environmental health threat as littered electronic waste.
Their endocrine-disrupting plastics, lithium ion batteries and electronic circuit boards require disassembly, sorting and proper further recycling and disposal. Their instructions do not say anything about disposal. Electronic waste (e-waste) already presents a daunting environmental quandary and is notoriously difficult to recycle. When littered, broken devices can leach metals, battery acid and nicotine into the local environment and urban landscape.
A Preventable Environmental Health Disaster
A main question public health regulators must face is: How are these new devices being disposed of? Are e-cigarettes being thrown away carelessly, like cigarette butts? Or disposed of in special electronic waste facilities, like smartphones? Preliminary results from litter pickups give mixed results. Juul pods are found routinely littered, especially where young people congregate. But because of the double-bind of e-cigarette waste being both electronic waste due to the components and hazardous waste due to the nicotine liquid residue, currently there is no legal way to recycle them in the U.S. The Office on Smoking and Health and the EPA need to coordinate their regulations to allow for the safe recycling and waste minimization of these products.
More than 58 million e-cigarette products were sold in the U.S. (not including those sold in vape shops or online) in 2015, 19.2 million of which were disposable e-cigarettes. A 2014 study found that none of the surveyed e-cigarette packages contained disposal instructions.
The major transnational tobacco companies so far primarily sell throwaway, one-use "closed" system products. Vuse and MarkTen, owned by Reynolds American and Altria, respectively, are two leading U.S. e-cigarettes, and both are closed systems. While these products may prevent nicotine poisoning in small children, their environmental health harms may be significantly larger due to their expendable design.
Most independent vaporizer manufacturers sell open, or reusable, systems, which are more popular with longer-term users and possibly more effective to quit than traditional cigarettes. In other markets, however, like the U.K. and Japan, transnational tobacco companies British American Tobacco (BAT) and Japan Tobacco International have begun to heavily market open systems.
BAT's website on the disposal of their Vype e-cigarette warns "electrical waste and electronic equipment can contain hazardous substances which, if not treated properly, could lead to damage to the environment and human health." So neither open nor closed systems are environmentally sustainable.
The World Health Organization, in its report Tobacco and Its Environmental Impact: An Overview, recently noted the "quieter but shockingly widespread impacts of tobacco from an environmental perspective." Article 18 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control states that all signatory parties "agree to have due regard to the protection of the environment and the health of persons in relation to the environment in respect of tobacco cultivation and manufacture within their respective territories." It is time to close the loop and pay increased attention to tobacco product disposal as well.
As regulatory agencies continue deciding how to regulate e-cigarettes, not only should the immediate health effects and secondhand effects of the products be taken into account, but I believe the environmental effects of these products should be too.
The mounting environmental impact of the single-use nonrecyclable coffee fad has left coffee capsule Keurig inventor John Sylvan regretting his invention. Will apocryphal e-cigarette inventor Hon Lik ever have a similar reckoning regarding the mountains of e-cigarette e-waste? Let's hope it never gets to that point.
Dr. Hendlin is an environmental philosopher and public health policy researcher with over 12 years experience in tobacco control.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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