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Human Effort Planet Care

108: e-cigarette

Problem:

An estimated 1.69 billion pounds of butts wind up as toxic trash each year. A cigarette does not readily biodegrade. The core of the butt can take anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to decompose.

Cigarette butts are among the most abundant types of human-produced garbage in the world’s oceans. Most of the roughly 5.5 trillion cigarettes manufactured globally every year contain a plastic-based filter, made of cellulose acetate, according to the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project.

Sunlight will degrade it and break it into very small particles, which wind up in the soil or swept in water, contributing to water pollution.

More recently, when testing the effects of soaked used cigarette butts on two fish species (saltwater topsmelt and freshwater fathead minnow), researchers found that the nicotine from one cigarette butt per liter of water was enough to kill half of the exposed fish. It is not clear which toxin was responsible for the death of the fish.​

Solution:

Electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes


The first electronic cigarette was developed in America. In 1963 Herbert A. Gilbert applied for a patent for his “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette”, and the patent was granted in 1965. Gilbert’s invention was nicotine-free, but it produced a flavoured vapour that was supposed to replace tobacco smoke. Gilbert actually got as far as making prototypes of the gadget, but there was not any real commercial interest.

There were some technical challenges, too. Gilbert’s design relied on battery power, but battery technology in the early 1960s was a long way behind where it is now. Rechargeable batteries were expensive and usually heavy; conventional batteries were expensive and had limited energy storage. The first electronic cigarette was ahead of its time both socially and technologically, but after Gilbert’s patent was granted the concept sank into obscurity for almost 40 years: the stored energy could not be withdrawn fast enough.

In 2001, Hon Lik of Beijing, China, a 52-year-old research pharmacist, who worked as a research pharmacist for a company producing ginseng products reportedly created an electronic cigarette after his father, also a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer. Lik thought of using a high frequency, piezoelectric ultrasound-emitting element to vaporize a pressurized jet of liquid containing nicotine. This design created a smoke-like vapor. Lik found that using resistance heating obtained better results and the difficulty was to scale down the device to a small enough size.

In 2003, he registered a patent and the e-cigarette was first introduced to the Chinese domestic market the following year. E-cigarettes entered the European market and the US market in 2006 and 2007. The company that Lik worked for, Golden Dragon Holdings, registered an international patent in November 2007 changing its name to Ruyan (如烟, literally “like smoke”) later the same month.

The number of e-cigarette brands sold on the internet is large and the variety of flavours staggering: more than 460 brands and 7700 flavours. Roughly 10.8 million American adults are currently using e-cigarettes, and more than half of them are under 35 years old, a U.S. study suggests.

From their very roots, what they do, to where they end up, vapor cigarettes have a far lighter carbon footprint than their combustible counterparts. Designed to be reusable, they last a very long time, and only e-cigarette cartridges get changed out according to the smoker’s usage.

They are not a landfill burden but they do 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.

While most batteries are recyclable, unfortunately, many vapers tend to throw their old ones in the trash. Whether it is vape pens or mods, all vaporizers operate on li-ion batteries. Some may last longer than others, but the result is that sooner or later, these will be disposed of and replaced.

According to their manufacturers, safe disposal of li-ion batteries requires ensuring that they are fully discharged and cooled, then submerging them in cold saltwater for two weeks—covered securely with a lid—before wrapping them in newspaper and placing them in the trash. In addition, the zinc and manganese recycled from such batteries can be used as fertilizer (see entry)

What you can do: If you smoke, make it eco-friendly.

Discover solution 109: Global warning about our limited resources

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