DES40A Winter 2018
Sustainability of the JUUL
For centuries humans have been using tobacco products to get the euphoric effects of nicotine. What started as a plant quickly turned into a wildly addictive drug first through the use of pipes, then cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, and finally the JUUL. The JUUL is a kind of electronic cigarette used to get a nicotine high without inhaling the toxins and carcinogens that come with a typical cigarette. There is almost no dispute in the medical world that e-cigarettes are much healthier for a person than a regular cigarette due to lack of carcinogens. However, there is some controversy about the sustainability and environmental aspect of e-cigarettes like the JUUL. Although, it seems like the JUUL is an immediately healthier way to consume nicotine, it is not environmentally sustainable and may even be worse for the environment and your health than a regular cigarette.
The JUUL is a small e-cigarette that looks like a long USB drive. JUULs are made of an aluminum shell that houses a lithium ion battery and replaceable pods made of aluminum, plastic, and liquid nicotine. The liquid nicotine is heated up by the lithium ion battery which allows it to be smoked and gives the user the nicotine high they are after. One of the main issues with cigarettes is the second hand smoke that it creates. This smoke contains a plethora of toxins such as CO2 and formaldehyde (that’s what they preserve dead bodies with) which cause harmful second hand smoke and help contribute to global warming. Respectively, JUUL smoke doesn’t contain any CO2 and has almost no effect on the environment (E-cigs and the Environmental Impact They Have on the Planet). In this sense the JUUL is not only a healthier option for those addicted to nicotine, it is, as far as research has concluded, a safe and environmentally friendly way to produce smoke. The reason the JUUL doesn’t create emissions is because it actually produces vapor instead of smoke. Vapor isn’t toxic to our environment because liquid nicotine doesn’t contain the hundreds of toxins and carcinogens that cigarettes do. So although you might fear creating emissions while smoking a JUUL, you’re actually not doing any harm and if you’d switched over from a cigarette you’re doing our environment some good- or so you’d think.
Although the emissions created from actually smoking the JUUL seem to be relatively harmless, that’s just about the only harmless and sustainable part of the JUUL as it currently is. The aluminum shell and the plastic pods are technically recyclable but the company currently doesn’t have in place any sort of recycling system or awareness for their product. It would take meticulous skill and time to take apart a JUUL and bring each part to a proper recycling facility. This is not only unrealistic to ask of a consumer, but JUUL isn’t even asking this of their customers! JUUL has no education awareness surrounding the environmental impact of their product and doesn’t even sell their product in recyclable boxes (the boxes have a film on them that keep them from being recyclable). In fact, if you claim your JUUL is broken they automatically send you a new one and don’t even request you send your old one in to be fixed or repurposed for future use. When I looked up whether or not you can easily recycle a JUUL, the only google finds were Reddit pages of people asking the same thing and others responding that they “Just throw them away” (Reddit). Additionally, from what I have observed as a person who is constantly surrounded by the JUUL, users are almost always throwing their pods and broken JUULs straight into the trash. So, although the parts are recyclable, “unless all e-smokers recycle the various parts of their smoker, the environmental damage could be far worse and longer lasting than cigarette paper and filters” (Holding). This is due to the fact that plastic and metals are impossible to decompose. So even though one cigarette butt may take 10 years to decompose, 10 years is a whole lot better than never.
Along the same lines, JUULs are powered by a lithium ion battery. In theory Li-Ion batteries are great because they can be recharged around 300 times and can then be recycled. So although, in theory, the Li-ion battery can be recycled and reused for future products, the reality is that it isn’t happening. (Are you sensing a recurring theme yet?) More often than not these batteries, along with the entire JUUL, are being thrown into the trash and end up in landfills. Lithium Ion batteries contain a whole slew of hazards which can end up hurting you even all the way out in landfill territory. Many landfills don’t have proper containment and toxins from the lithium ion batteries can seep into the ground and enter water systems which eventually come out of the tap. For example, one toxin present in lithium ion batteries is cobalt. In small doses cobalt is fine for you (it makes up B12 which is great for all your organs) but when consumed in excess cobalt can cause nausea, heart conditions, and can even result in death (TSB). Proper disposal and recycling of the lithium ion batteries in the JUUL just aren’t happening and the effects it can have on your health (e.i. death) can even be worse than had you stuck with regular cigarettes and not turned to the “healthy vapor” afterall. So although you might not get lung cancer, you just as easily could die from poisons in your water.
It is already clear that the JUUL itself isn’t sustainable but what is just as bad are the replaceable pods that house the nicotine. One pod claims to hold the same amount of nicotine as a whole pack of cigarettes (JUUL Support). One of my friends is addicted to the nicotine high now and smokes an entire pod every day. This means that in one year he produces 365 pods that are thrown straight into the trash can. If he instead smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, he would create 7,300 cigarette butts per year. If we assumed that each butt took 10 years to decompose and we could only decompose one at a time it would take approximately 73,000 years to decompose his cigarettes from one year. Although that is a disgustingly long time, 73,000 years is a hell of a lot less time than forever. Despite the time, his trash would eventually decompose unlike that of the plastic from the JUUL. Although, if taken apart the aluminum and plastic could be recycled or even reused, JUUL doesn’t have a program to do this and the user base isn’t taking matters into their own hands. Most of the JUUL’s users are adolescent/ college age students that do not have the means, motivation, or time to take apart their JUUL pods to put them into the recycling bin. Due to the effort it would take to recycle, and the demographic of people using the JUUL, almost every pod that is used ends up in landfill (I don’t think I really need to go into why accumulating trash in a landfill is bad). According to their site, JUUL produces 20 million JUUL products per MONTH. Because there is no way to recycle their product that means that 20 million pieces of plastic, aluminum, lithium ion, and packaging are thrown into the landfill. Making some assumptions about the products they sell, in one month the amount of product they make fills 13 football fields. That means that in one year 156 football fields worth of waste is created from just the JUUL alone. And the 20 million number is expected to rise. JUUL is a start up currently in its FIRST year of production. It is likely to gain in popularity and create even more waste in the years to come.
Lastly, the nicotine contained in the JUUL pod, if not disposed of properly can be detrimental. Like lithium ion batteries, if not properly disposed of, nicotine can cause horrible side effects such as seizures, nausea and death (Holding). When thrown straight into the landfill, nicotine can enter the water systems and cause severe health risks. It can also the affect plants and animals who are necessary to the stability of the environment if they come in contact with contaminated water. Cartridges are also small enough that if they end up in oceans, they can cause serious health issues to animals that may accidentally consume them- not to mention the fact that our oceans would be polluted with nicotine (yuck).
JUUL markets itself as a safe way for nicotine addicts to still get their fix without harming their bodies. This statement leads users to believe that their product isn’t harmful in any sense. Many more people will become addicted to nicotine with the invention of e-cigs because the cancer causing toxins and weird chemicals in cigarettes aren’t present and seem to not cause any immediate or long term effect on the users health. However, as I have highlighted there is a huge misconception about whether e-cigs are good for you. Sure they may not directly give you cancer but they cause an enormous amount of indestructible waste which pollutes our lands and our oceans and causes potential for toxic waste to enter our ecosystems and our bodies.
I want to make it clear that in no way should this essay convince you that smoking cigarettes are better for you than e-cigarettes because in reality, they are both horrible for you and the environment. On one hand, it’s easy to see that e-cigarettes have the potential to be a safer and environmentally sustainable option for nicotine use. However, potential is the key word here because currently e-cigarettes aren’t a sustainable option due to the non biodegradable properties of their materials and the ultra toxic state in which nicotine is used. In order for me to give my sustainability stamp of approval I would like to see JUUL make some huge changes to their company and product line. First, and easiest, I’d like to see them use recyclable packaging for all of their products. Secondly, I want to see JUUL create an easy to use and free recycling program for their products. Lastly, and at least, JUUL should provide information on their packaging about how to dispose of all of their products in a safe and environmentally friendly way if people are unable to have access to the recycling program they will also put in place. I believe the JUUL has the potential to be a sustainable and healthy alternative to smoking cigarettes. Until the company makes a few changes and the culture surrounding JUUL becomes a bit less frivolous, it is clear that although the initial vapor may be safer in the short run, overall the JUUL is unsustainable and a huge threat to our environment, ecosystem and long term health.
Bastian, Lori A., and Cheryl Oncken. “What Should We Tell Our Patients About E-Cigarettes?” SpringerLink, Springer US, 9 July 2014, link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11606-014-2943-5
DRIVENxDESIGN. “JUUL.” DRIVENxDESIGN, drivenxdesign.com/d100/showcase_details.asp?ID=14639.
“E-Cigs and the Environmental Impact They Have On the Planet.” IEC Vaping Authority, info-electronic-cigarette.com/what-is-vaping/e-cigarettes-and-the-environment/.
Glantz, Stanton. “More Evidence That e-Cigarettes Pollute the Air and Expose Bystanders.” More Evidence That e-Cigarettes Pollute the Air and Expose Bystanders | Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, 25 July 2016, tobacco.ucsf.edu/more-evidence-e-cigarettes-pollute-air-and-expose-bystanders.
Holding, Carol Pierson. “E-Cigarettes Put the Environment at Risk.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 22 Apr. 2015, www.huffingtonpost.com/carol-pierson-holding/ecigarettes-put-the-envir_b_7108124.html.
Howard, Brian. “Cigarettes vs. e-Cigarettes: Which Is Less Environmentally Harmful? – National Geographic Blog.” National Geographic Blog, 11 Apr. 2011, blog.Nationalgeographic.org/2012/04/11/cigarettes-vs-e-cigarettes-which-is-less-environmentally-harmful/
“Introducing JUUL - A Real Alternative to Cigarettes.” JUUL - A Real Alternative to Cigarettes, www.juulvapor.com/.
“Lithium Ion Batteries.” Lithium Ion Batteries - American Disposal, www.americandisposal.com/blog/lithium-ion-batteries.
NCBI. Mar. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4323666/.
Price, Chris. “What Happens to Lithium Ion Batteries in a Landfill?”. Quora. www.quora.com/What-happens-to-lithium-ion-batteries-in-a-landfill