The pollution problem – the latest culprits, who’s to blame and is it solvable?

The vast volumes of waste and litter attributable to vaping have become a major issue in recent months, and even if some of the media coverage seems prompted by glee at finding yet another undesirable side effect of nicotine products, the underlying problem is real enough.

The latest objects of concern, though, are not disposable e-cigs but snus and nicotine pouches. The alarm on these has been raised by a Danish environmental group which warns that the pouches will not biodegrade and could become as much a headache as cigarette butts.

“When a new product comes out that is just as bad, we may well become a little discouraged,” said (or perhaps sighed) a volunteer in the municipality of Odsherred.


The biggest polluter in Denmark


Certainly, cigarettes remain a bigger plague. Last year, for example, the tobacco industry was identified as the most significant plastic polluter in Denmark by the advocacy group Plastic Change, and combustible butts were primarily responsible for that, along with cigarette packs. But Plastic Change agrees that pouches are an increasing problem.

This is not necessarily, or entirely, the manufacturers’ fault. At least some products provide, as part of their packaging, a compartment for waste which can later be discarded properly. Yet, clearly, not all consumers are taking advantage of that option.

“It is a really nice solution,” said the Odsherred volunteer. But, he added, perhaps not enough people were aware of it.

Today Denmark, tomorrow the world, perhaps? Naturally, waste from pouches is going to be a smaller-scale worry than that from combustibles or e-cigs, given market penetration.

But, quite apart from the industry’s moral responsibility to ensure its act is as cleaned up as possible, at a time when the social acceptability of reduced-risk nicotine products is on a knife edge in so many countries, it’s also strategically wise to avoid offering opponents any more leverage.

Less tractable challenges (around materials and electronic components, for example) might persist. But even they can be addressed, and in the case of discarded pouches, the short-term solutions may not be difficult at all. Simply educating and encouraging consumers could be a big step forward, and help avoid the risk that pollution (like nicotine poisoning, or e-cigarette fires) becomes the next threat du jour.


The great polonium panic of 2023

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Join in to hear about news, events, and podcasts in the sector

    See more


    Meanwhile, the flames of anxiety are also being fanned in Australia over a somewhat less plausible issue: radioactive polonium-210 in e-cigarette vapour.

    The possibility that this substance – which was used to murder Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, and therefore offers much scope for juicy headlines – might be another ghastly risk of vaping was raised by Alexander Larcombe, head of respiratory environmental health at the Telethon Kids Institute, an Australian research organisation.

    Larcombe produced a wide-ranging article on the dangers of vaping for The Conversation, a generally respected Australian-based web publication where researchers can write directly for the public.

    For the most part its points were familiar and not unreasonable, albeit phrased in a negative way, but the publication chose to focus in its headline on the point about polonium, which even Larcombe acknowledged was unproven.


    ‘Baseless fear mongering in desperation’


    Now, concern about polonium is not entirely unfounded. Its presence in cigarette smoke has been known at least since 1964, and the tobacco industry’s attempt to downplay it was publicised in 2008, a couple of years after the Litvinenko incident.

    But none of this means there is polonium in e-cigarette vapour, and nor does the fact that a lab in Queensland is testing vapour for the substance, without results as yet. Larcombe says it “is feasible”, but then describes how it might happen “if the glycerine in e-liquids comes from plants and [certain fertilisers] are used to grow them”.

    In other words, even if there is polonium-210 in e-cigarette vapour, it’s nothing to do with cigarettes, tobacco or nicotine. And any risk it presents is not, in any meaningful way, a result of e-cigarettes’ relationship to combustible cigarettes.

    The e-cig sector is used to this kind of insinuation – the kind of argument where facts, very likely correct in themselves, all look rather alarming individually and collectively, and it’s only when you examine them closely that you see the jumps in logic.

    The great polonium panic of 2023 will likely die down soon enough. But let’s hope that the environmental impact of reduced-risk products doesn’t become the next target of what Mexican vaping advocate Roberto Sussman called “baseless fear mongering in desperation”.

    – Barnaby Page TobaccoIntelligence staff

    Photo: James Robertson

    Barnaby Page

    Editorial director
    Before joining ECigIntelligence in early 2014 as one of its first employees, Barnaby had a 30-year career as a reporter and editor for newspapers, magazines and online services, working in Canada, the US and the Middle East as well as his current British location. He has edited publications covering fields including technology and the advertising industry, and was launch editor of the first large daily online news service in the British regional media. Barnaby also writes on classical music and film for a number of publications. Barnaby manages the editorial and reporting teams and works closely with the analyst teams, to ensure that all content meets high standards of quality and relevance. He also writes for the site occasionally, mostly on science-related issues, and is a member of the Association of British Science Writers.