How bad is Juuling for the environment?

This article is part of 'An Optimist's Guide to the End of the World,' a collection of stories aimed at disproving the idea that humanity is doomed.

As a long-term smoker who has tried unsuccessfully to quit cold turkey, one of my biggest victories came in early 2019 when I picked up a Juul for the first time. It was love at first pull and, after a few days of formaldehyde clouds, I even lost the desire to pick up another cigarette altogether. The smell of cigarettes began to bother me, a sharp change from the warm nostalgia they used to hold, something I attribute to my extended Italian-American family smoking in front of me as a child. They now felt harsher, too tar-like, heavier. While a cigarette would make me feel sleepy, I could hit my Juul and be running on the treadmill the next hour. Even better, I could Juul discreetly indoors whether at my job, on the subway platform, or in the comfort of my own home. If it felt too good to be true, that’s because it was.

And while the health impacts and addictive qualities of Juuling at large have yet to be fully understood — in 2019, as many as one out of every 17 high school students nationwide reported smoking e-cigarettes daily, with Juul use leading the pack — there is even less knowledge on the impact and consequences of Juuling and e-cigarettes on our environment. Walking through New York City, Juul shrapnel is omnipresent. From the plastic tops to drained pod cartridges, the streets are littered with plastic from the devices. And Juul’s components leave little room for reuse, made with hazardous chemicals and one-time use plastic that seemingly should have been abandoned in commercial use decades ago. So what is the environmental impact of Juul use, and what might be done to curb its damage?

Enter the Juul waste experts

Perhaps the most knowledgeable person in the world on the subject of Juul e-waste is Yogi Hendlin, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with over 15 years of experience in Tobacco Control and a degree in environmental philosophy.

When I spoke to Hendlin, he was quick to point out how the tobacco industry’s rush to adopt e-cigarettes runs strangely parallel to the way in which they incorporated cigarette filters nearly 70 years earlier. Hendlin compared the implementation and marketing of the Juul as a safer cigarette alternative to the way cigarette companies first introduced filters. “It's this superfluous appendage to the organism of the cigarette, which has zero health value,” and which may have even made the product more unhealthy and worse for the environment.

“[In the waste stream], if they can incinerate it, they end up in our air,” points out Jeremiah Mock, associate professor at the Institute for Health & Aging at UCSF. “If they go into landfills, they break down and eventually work their way down through landfills [and into our soil and water ways.]”

“Then there's e-cigarettes which, in terms of their composition, are more like your smartphone than a cigarette butt,” Hendlin notes.

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What goes into Juuls and Juul pods

When you look at or use a Juul, it’s very much like smoking a cigarette. No tank to fill, no fancy buttons to push, just two simple pieces — the Juul stick and the pod — that connect to recreate the sensation of smoking a cigarette.

Much like your cell phone, a Juul holds a battery with a patented LED Power Indicator as well as a temperature regulation system. This last mechanism prevents the Juul from overheating or exploding, which has been a problem for other e-cigarette companies.

Then, there are the pods, which contain Juul's patented e-liquid formula: “a mixture of nicotine salts, glycerol, propylene glycol, benzoic acid and flavorings,” according to Vox. Overall, e-cigarettes at large may contain “plastics, nicotine, heavy metals, other chemical toxins, and hazardous lithium-ion batteries, [as well as] plastic cellulose acetate, nicotine, formaldehyde, lead, and cadmium,” according to Notes from the Field: Environmental Contamination from E-cigarette, Cigarette, Cigar, and Cannabis Products at 12 High Schools, a research paper recently co-authored by Hendlin and Mock.

“Juul has a unique recipe where they essentially free-base the tobacco in what are called nicotine salts,” explains Hendlin. “It's these salts that allow [the nicotine] to enter into your brain and blood really fast. [They also have] a little copper pipe in there [as well as a] little bit of circuitry [and] nicotine residue and other tobacco alkaloids, which is also one of Juul's very intelligent recipe secrets.”

Beyond the amounts of nicotine and tobacco residue tossed in the garbage or on the sidewalk which enter into waterways that could be lethal for marine life, the plastic elements alone are cause for alarm, according to Mock. “[When] you look at the Juul pod, it's got 3 major plastic components: the capsule itself, the black cap, and the cap that is removed when inserted into the device. Those are the 3 main plastic components, which rapidly break apart. You take those each, and you divide those as individual components, [and] we're talking about roughly 2 billion Juul waste items that are discarded or will be discarded [in 2019], assuming no growth. [And] that's just in the U.S.,” says Mock, adding, “Where [and how] they're discarded, we don't know.”

Environmental impact means construction and disposal

In the last two years, environmentalists and scientists have seen, for the first time, e-cigarettes coming up in quantity during routine beach cleanups, which is telling of larger environmental degradation because, as Hendlin notes, “beaches are indicators.” Over the course of 20 beach cleanups just off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, environmental group Clean Ocean Action found around “50 pieces” of Juul paraphernalia, including Juul pods, accessories, or the Juuls themselves, but the numbers can be hard to parse even for those so closely tied to the issue. “I've found like 5 today, so if we are talking about 20 cleanups [a summer] that's 100 if it’s roughly 5 each cleanup,” notes Clean Ocean Action’s coastal watershed protection coordinator, Alison McCarthy. While the number may seem slim in comparison to other beach trash statistics, the true scale of the damage is difficult to measure.

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“[Juul] is still an oddity and a new thing, but because the animals eat anything floating on the surface or around on the ocean, we’re not sure [what access the animals have to the pods]. But once they ingest these things, they get whatever [is] in them, along with the plastic,” notes Cindy Zipf, the founder and executive director of Clean Ocean Action. Zipf points out how a large percentage of trash gets to the ocean through saltwater runoff, so that even people flicking their cigarette butts or disposing of Juul pods in more urban environments might be responsible for the trash ending up in oceans and, eventually, into marine life. “[Even when they degrade], they are just getting smaller and smaller and affecting more and more animals at the smaller very base of the food chain.”

So while we can’t readily evaluate the exact environmental output toll of Juul Labs Inc., we can look at the environmental input toll, and that begins with creating Juuls and Juul pods.

“People forget that tobacco farming is one of the most environmentally destructive practices in the world,” Hendlin says. “You know the fires down in the Amazon? There’s a lot of soy and beef farmers [causing the destruction] but a lot of them are tobacco farmers, too.” As of 2018, Brazil was the world’s second-largest tobacco producer. Beyond man-caused fire, the cultivation of the crop is a hazard in and of itself. In Malawi, where tobacco is seen as a key economic driver, farmers live an average of [39.8] years of life. “[This life expectancy is similar to the] Paleolithic ages. Because of the working conditions and because they're touching tobacco with bare hands, they get all sorts of cancer or Green Tobacco Sickness. They're dying as young men, with the mortality average of 33 years. In some cases, men are dying as young as 18 years old,” Hendlin says. “With Juul, the nicotine that they're using still comes from the same tobacco […] so the environmental degradation on the input side is just as big, I believe, for e-cigarettes as it is for normal cigarettes.”

Potential solutions

While Juul garbage is a relatively new phenomenon, states and countries have been working on innovative strategies to address their cigarette pollution for decades. In France, there have been several pushes to hold tobacco companies accountable for butt cleanup. If tobacco companies don’t cooperate and practice Extended Producer Responsibility – a strategy to build environmental costs associated with a product into the product’s market price – and voluntarily address these problems, France warns they could face penalties, though it has not stressed what those penalties might be. In turn, smaller initiatives in the country, like MéGo, collect and recycle filters in order to process them at their factories and turn them into reusable plastic products. And last June, the European Parliament issued a directive urging for reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment, a law that tobacco companies will have to comply with by 2024.

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Much like the progress in the EU and likewise California’s Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act – which would require significant reductions in the use of disposable products and require manufacturers to make packaging exclusively out of recyclable materials – Hendlin argues that to become environmentally nontoxic, Juul needs to practice Extended Producer Responsibility. ”What [Juul needs] to do is for each pod you buy, put a buck tax on it, which is a deposit,” Hendlin summarizes. “When you buy electronics, [like an] Apple computer, you pay an extra [fee so that] when you deliver the machine to an electronic waste recycler or to Apple themselves, they'll pay you to take their product back.”

This buyback sentiment is hardly new, as one can see in ubiquitous glass bottle deposits and in Silicon Valley alike. “Eight of the ten largest Forbes 400 companies that work with consumer goods recently launched this thing called Loop, [where] basically you'll get your Häagen-Dazs in a stainless steel container, Hendlin explains. “When you go to get your next one, you drop off your container, so basically you're on this permanent deposit and refund system, right? You get your deposit back when you return your container. [Juul has] every reason to do [this] except for the competitive disadvantage at the fore-end when another brand swoops in and they go for the skeezy route [and don’t care about recycling]... that's their fear.”

A representative from Juul confirmed that it is practicing recycling within the company, but has yet to implement a strategy when it comes to the product’s consumer base. “We have piloted an internal takeback and recycling program with employees in a number of our office locations to ensure we develop effective, innovative and sustainable solutions,” a spokesperson from Juul tells Mic.

Hendlin speculates that a main factor in Juul’s slow adoption of a buyback system may be traced to their market shares. “Back in December of 2018, "Altria [the parent company of Philip-Morris USA], bought [a] controlling, significant minority, [which equals] 35% of stakes in the company...so now [Juul has] all the best lawyers in the world if they're ever being hounded by the FDA,” Hendlin explains. “Because Juul [is now part-owned by] Altria, they are not going to go away anytime soon, [it might be that] JUUL is [like] Facebook and we're just stuck with it.”

Clean Ocean Action’s Cindy Zipf agrees with this assessment. “It's rare that a corporation will do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do...They are owned by their shareholders and they are beholden to them and if they are going to do something that is going to cost the company money...they'd be very hard pressed and would have to have a good reason,” Zipf says. “But if they had the general public speaking out and saying ‘no, this is unacceptable and we want you to change your product to be more sustainable and environmentally responsible’ [then there might be hope.]” Zipf relates this to what’s happening with plastic straws and, before that, styrofoam. “I think it's beginning to happen but we are a long way from where we need to be in order for us to have a livable planet for [all] walks of life that are here.”

Zipf maintains that in order to change corporate behavior, we as a people need to become less reliant on what is being offered and speak up collectively. She points to corporate responsibility measures taken by McDonald’s as a glimmer of hope of achieving results through collective action. “Kids got involved..[and] told them to get rid of their styrofoam containers and it got to the point that McDonald's did get rid of their styrofoam containers.” Zipf praises grassroots organizing for being the main factor in influencing corporate change, claiming that we the people need to step up, “whether it’s through our own refusal to let the convenience factor destroy the planet and do so on our own accord or [by] pushing elected officials to pass state laws or local laws, or the items within their city, or their town, or their state, or in some instances their country.” While Zipf knows the solution is not simple, she puts her faith in the power of the people who “have to step up and say ‘this is not acceptable.’” Until then, trash will remain king.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify that Altria is the parent company of Philip-Morris USA.