Laura Young is a climate activist, environmental scientist, and ethical influencer. Laura started, and continues to lead, the campaign to see single-use disposable vapes banned across Scotland and the UK. 

Could you start by explaining why single use vapes are an environmental problem? 

First and foremost, they are a throw away electronic product, which means they are jam packed full of really precious materials like lithium, cobalt and copper. All of these materials are packed inside a device that’s not easy to take apart, so when they get thrown away we lose all of these materials.  

They’re also litter, so they’re being found across parks, roads and beaches. When they get broken they leave microplastics and leech out all sorts of toxic chemicals which is damaging for wildlife. 

In the UK we throw away about 5 million of them a week! 

Tell us about your campaign: how did it start? How did you convince so many people and organisations to join you in your call to take action on vapes?  

The campaign started because I was out with my dog and picking up all kinds of litter around the local park. After I first noticed them I was seeing more and more every day. One day I found one that had been run over so I saw what was actually inside it so that got me really thinking about how we can reduce the prevalence of them. 

I got together with a group of people who I knew in the environmental space to find out if anyone was working on the issue or if they were keen to, and discovered it was being considered as a big issue by many groups but not much work was actually happening yet. 

Slowly from there it was built by chatting to people who were interested in the issue from all different angles – waste workers, teachers, councillors, public health experts. We realised it was really a ban that was needed because there’s already a reusable option that’s available. 

You have been such an advocate against vapes in the media you even earned the nickname ‘the vaped crusader’. Do you have anything you would like to say to other campaigners about how to get your voice heard?  

One of the biggest things I’ve realised about campaigning is the power of social media. You can take to your own social media or if you’re part of a group, their social media, and talk about an issue and create your own story. I made these videos of myself picking up litter while out on walks and they got millions of views which then got journalists interested. I’d say to everyone – use the platforms that are available to you because you can drum up the excitement there. Find creative and unique ways to engage people and bring people along with you. 

Once the buzz had been created, I got to know a couple of journalists who cared about the issue and kept chipping away at it, so I kept in touch with them and let them know about any developments unfolding in case it would make a good story for them. 

The announcement of a UK ban on single use vapes is one of the biggest circular economy successes in recent years. What do you think made it such a success? 

I think one of the reasons it’s been so successful is that it’s been super targeted and very clear from the beginning. We knew we wanted a ban, and we didn’t waver from that. 

Another thing is that it was a very holistic and community centred campaign – everybody had their voice included. We had litter pickers, environmental organisations, public health advocates, GPs, parents, school kids, professors, which meant we were able to address so many perspectives. I don’t think it would have worked as well if we just looked at it from one angle. 

Of course we don’t have time to review each product in turn. How do you think this success could be built upon to create more systemic change? 

I hope the ban on disposable vapes will do two things. Firstly from a public health perspective – I hope that it makes us see that the tobacco and nicotine industry is constantly looking to reinvent itself, to find new ways to hook people onto nicotine. I hope we can use that to stay one step ahead. 

I also hope we can use this as a framework for other disposable electronics as they arise. There should be nothing that has electronic components that is designed to be thrown away. This has been the first mainstream one but there are others that exist and will be coming down the line, from electronic fans to digital pregnancy tests. We need to make sure they are regulated in a way that means the companies producing them are responsible for dealing with them and recovering the minerals, but we also need to look at how we can avoid this from becoming commonplace altogether. 

Finally, what’s next for you and the campaign? Do you plan to take a well-earned rest or are you looking to the next challenge already? 

Although the campaigning part is done, there’s still about a year of building the legislation to get the best legislation possible – so the work is not done! We’re having conversations with different politicians to look at making sure it’s robust and there’s no loopholes. We still need to look at that wider issue of disposable electronics too to make sure that the change is happening in a systematic way

I want to use all of my own experience of this process to help other people with their own campaigns too. I don’t think that my way of campaigning is the perfect way, but I’ve learnt so much while doing this that I think I can provide some helpful resources for people and hopefully people can build upon it. 

Also I did all of this in my spare time, so now I need to focus on my PhD!