Rise of Disposable E-Cigs and the Battery Waste Crisis in the UK

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Rise of Disposable E-Cigs and the Battery Waste Crisis in the UK
Disposable e-cigarettes have seen an 18-fold increase in popularity in the UK since 2021, causing a waste problem.

According to reports from British media, the popularity of disposable e-cigarettes has skyrocketed in the UK since 2021. A survey discovered that their popularity has increased 18-fold from January 2021 to April 2022. In a mere 15 months, among individuals aged 18, their popularity has risen from 0.4% to 54.8%.


This has led to a new waste problem, with approximately 1.3 million devices being discarded in the UK each week. As a result, around 10,000 kilograms of lithium from e-cigarette batteries end up in British landfills every year, posing a threat to nearby waterways with toxic nickel, cobalt, and organic solvents.


The research team suspects that the batteries used in disposable e-cigarettes are rechargeable, but they are unaware of any previous studies that have assessed the lifespan of the lithium-ion batteries in these products.


In order to investigate this, a research team led by Professor Paul Shearing (from the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford and the Department of Chemical Engineering at UCL) collected batteries from disposable e-cigarettes under controlled conditions. They then utilized tools and techniques commonly employed in battery research for electric vehicles and other devices to evaluate them.


The batteries were examined under a microscope, and X-ray computed tomography was used to visualize their internal structure and understand their composition materials. By repeatedly charging and discharging the batteries, they determined their ability to maintain their electrochemical performance over time, finding that they could be charged hundreds of times in certain cases.


Professor Xie Lin stated:


We were surprised by the results indicating how long these batteries could last in cycles. If used at a low rate of charge and discharge, you would find that even after more than 700 cycles, they still maintained over 90% of their capacity. In fact, this is quite impressive for a battery. Yet, these batteries were simply discarded. They were just thrown away on the roadside.


At the very least, it is essential for the public to be aware of the battery types used in these devices and the proper disposal methods for these batteries. Manufacturers should offer an ecosystem for the reuse and recycling of e-cigarette batteries, and they should shift towards rechargeable devices as the default option.


Professor Xie Lin and his team are also researching new and more selective methods of battery recycling, which allow for the recovery of individual components without cross-contamination, as well as more sustainable battery chemistries, including post-lithium-ion, lithium-sulfur, and sodium-ion batteries.


In order to address the challenges faced by the entire battery supply chain, he further added that scientists should consider the lifecycle of batteries when considering any application of batteries: "This actually permeates all of our work, whether it's a vaporizer battery or a battery for an electric helicopter. When considering the lifecycle of battery devices, we need to fully understand the lifespan of the battery.


The popularity of disposable e-cigarettes has seen a significant increase in recent years, according to Hamish Reed, the lead researcher from the UCL Department of Chemical Engineering. Despite being marketed as disposable products, our research indicates that the lithium-ion batteries inside these devices can be charged and discharged over 450 times. This study highlights the immense waste of finite resources caused by disposable e-cigarettes.


The study titled "Lithium-Ion Batteries in Vaporous Conditions: Considerations in Disposable E-Cigarettes" has been published in the journal "Joule".


This project has received support from the EPSRC CASE award, Faraday Institution, Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), and the Royal Academy of Engineering's Chair in Emerging Technologies. The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) has also provided support.


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