I found the detonator at the side of the road to Sandhead, on the Rhinns of Galloway. It had been run over, possibly by one of the big, heavy trucks transporting grass to the farms for silage, but its wires were still attached and some of the inner wadding material was poking out of one end.
There was no obvious reason why a detonator would have ended up here: no new roads being blasted through the gentle, rolling fields; no nearby quarries; no railway tunnels under construction. But it made sense as the logical next member of the series: rifle, axe, bullets, detonator.
All found on rural paths or country roads. All found by George and me. All seeds from which stories might germinate, albeit stories of a sinister or even violent tone. Stories, perhaps, of hot passion and cold calculation. Stories of desire and jealousy; of battles fought over ownership, control, domination of people, resources or land. Perhaps the detonator represented the cruel or unthinking displacement of people from their lands by the powerful: territorial expansion, acquisition and transformation carried out in the name of King, God, Science, Growth or Progress.
A couple of weeks later, I found a new piece of evidence that transformed the detonator into a harbinger of a different kind of Progress.
Early on Tuesday morning, on the road outside a takeaway, I spotted a slightly less battered version of the detonator – this one still recognizable as a disposable vape or e-cigarette.
We’ve been finding discarded vaping materials since we started Waste Stories (and before). The most commonly littered vape equipment seem to be disposables such as Elf Bars, Geek Bars and the Jolly Vaper pictured above. Neither George nor I knew what they were when we first came across them, so of course I picked one up, took it home and Googled it, then added it to the growing collection of Waste Story Seeds in the spare room.
Similarly with the small plastic bottles that contain refills for non-disposable models; I didn’t know what they were, and their labels were no help. Dinner Lady Salts? Although I suppose Elf and Geek are also pretty odd things to associate with nicotine solution, vegetable glycerine, propylene glycol and sickeningly sweet flavours.
Finding the crushed Jolly Vaper brought home to me just what kind of “progress” disposables vapes represent.
It’s true, of course, that smoking is not just bad for people’s health; it’s also bad for the environment. The filters used in most pre-rolled cigarettes (and those sold separately for use in roll-ups) are plastic, so the butts that litter the streets and paths are just another way of introducing plastic into the environment. They break down into microplastics after about 10-12 years, but that’s hardly a positive. In the meantime, they find their way into our sewers and water courses. (I have known people who carefully search out drains to throw their butts in, rather than leave them as unsightly litter on pavements and streets. It’s just another form of tidy littering, I guess.) Some of these filters, which contain tar and other toxic substances, inevitably end up in the stomachs of fish, birds and other creatures. Given that Ash Scotland estimates that 4 billion cigarettes are smoked in Scotland each year, this is a real problem (Ash Scotland have an active campaign about it).
Vapes are undoubtedly an advance in relation to human health – a way to inhale nicotine without burning tobacco (and all the other chemicals, such as saltpeter, that are added to tobacco in most brands of pre-rolled cigarette). But the crushed vapes I keep finding make more visible what we might otherwise allow ourselves to forget.
The plastic of the brightly-coloured cylinders is obvious, but the battered remains that I now recognise more often on the roads remind us that they contain more than just flavoured nicotine solution. They are e-cigarettes, after all. They contain batteries: standard non-rechargeable alkaline or lithium-ion batteries, typically AAA, power the heaters in disposable vapes. They contain metal in the form of wires, connectors and heating elements. Some of them contain bits of printed circuit board. They also contain more plastics (e.g. the insulation round the electrical wires) and wadding (often cotton) that soaks up the e-liquid and is therefore impregnated with toxic nicotine solution.
So should we worry about the potential environmental consequences of vape-disposal? Most disposable vapes and refills for re-usable vapes contain 2mg of nicotine salt: enough for 600 puffs. According to the Elf Bar 600 product description, this is the equivalent of 40 cigarettes. If Ash Scotland are correct that 4 billion cigarettes are smoked in Scotland each year, then if every single smoker switched from cigarettes to e-cigarettes, that would translate into 100 million vapes (either disposable or refill bottles) consumed each year. Even if only 10% of these are disposables, that’s 10 million additional batteries needing to be disposed of, 10 million plastic cartridges, and 10 million bits of toxic cotton wadding. There’s the obvious problem that disposables sometimes end up as litter, but even if they don’t, it’s hard to see what the responsible route for disposal might be. It’s unlikely that users will carefully dismantle them (most are constructed to stop this happening), remove the battery and take it to a dedicated battery disposal facility, and then seek out a specialist plastic recycling facility for the rigid plastic cylinders. Most likely, those that don’t end up on the street end up as landfill, where the toxic components will leach into the environment.
Taking all this into account, it’s not entirely clear that the technologization of smoking counts as Progress. Rather it seems to have created new ways to generate hazardous, polluting waste.