Electronic cigarettes: No butts on the ground, but there are the batteries to think about

SAN DIEGO - There's little debate that cigarette butts pollute the environment but electronic cigarettes may pose a different risk.

About 1.69 billion pounds of cigarette butts are littered worldwide each year, according to a report in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Locally, cigarette butts remain the No. 1 item found during cleanups, according to I Love a Clean San Diego executive director Pauline Martinson.

Martinson said the nonprofit group found 79,689 cigarette butts and 80,936 smoking-related items (like cigar tips and tobacco packaging) during 205 cleanups in 2013.

But electronic cigarettes—battery-operated and reusable devices that allow users to inhale vapor instead of smoke—pose a different risk for the environment, said Martinson.

"E-cigarettes are reusable and the cartridge is at a higher price point [than traditional cigarettes] so people are less likely to throw them away," she said. "But the batteries are even more hazardous for the environment. You need to properly dispose the battery—you can't just throw it away."

She said the growing popularity of electronic cigarettes may minimize the overall amount of cigarette-related trash they find but the group hasn't "seen anything drastic yet."

"We might begin to see change," she said.

VMR, a company that claims it is the No. 1 online retailer of electronic cigarettes, said the device "offers many advantages for those who are environmentally conscious."

"They don't emit smoke or ash, the vapor dissipates quickly and there's no cigarette butt waste," a VMR spokesman said in an email. "Unfortunately, very few of the estimated over 5.6 trillion cigarette butts produced each year are properly disposed of, and the environmental hazards of the butts are well-documented."

When it comes to the concerns of proper battery disposal, "Many regular vapors use rechargeable battery-powered kits, which offer long-term use with no need for replacement batteries," said the spokesman.

San Diego Councilman Mark Kersey, who proposed that electronic cigarettes be regulated the same way traditional cigarettes are in the city, didn't comment on the environmental impact. However, he does consider the devices to be unsafe.

"I think there are sensible regulations that allow adults to make adult decisions while protecting our children," he said. "And people don't want to be subjected to vaping."

Regulations on electronic cigarettes are becoming nearly as popular as the device itself.

In the past month, the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco have passed ordinances regulating the device. An ordinance to regulate electronic cigarettes is expected to be presented to San Diego's Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee within the next two months.

At the federal level, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, asked the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Mar. 27 to investigate the electronic cigarettes industry.

It remains to be seen whether any further regulations, either proposed or implemented, will address the environmental impact of electronic cigarettes.

"We’ll see the change, if any, as e-cigarettes become more popular," Martinson said. "We haven't reached a complete solution—batteries are an even more serious threat."

For information on how to properly dispose of batteries, including those found in electronic cigarettes, visit WasteFreeSD.org.

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