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1 October 2022

Single-use vapes show we can’t rely on Gen Z to fix the climate crisis

We know that young people would like to live in a better world but they cannot stop being products of the environment we built for them.

By Marie Le Conte

When did you realise you were no longer young? I turned 30 under a year ago and assumed my time would come eventually. It finally did last week. I was sitting on the Tube in London and refilling my e-cigarette; it is a deeply unglamorous process that involves shaking a large bottle of liquid nicotine then pouring some of it into what looks like a giant USB stick.

I looked up afterwards and caught the eye of the two women sitting opposite me. They’d clearly been watching my attempt not to cover my fingers in sticky “Virginia Lite blend” and looked at me with slight contempt. They were probably a decade younger than me.

“Oh I bet you and your little friends love Elf bars though,” I petulantly told them in my head. “I bet you love killing the planet with those silly, single-use colourful vapes that are now everywhere, because you really want to look cool.” 

“Christ,” I thought after that. “I’ve become a fogey”.

Still, I stand by my distaste for single-use vapes. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found earlier this year, “two disposable vapes are being thrown away every second in the UK. Over a year, this is enough lithium to make roughly 1,200 electric car batteries.”

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This fact should be enough to make them entirely socially unacceptable, yet they are everywhere, especially among young people. “In the UK, from January 2021 to January 2022, there was a 14-fold increase in the percentage of vapers that used disposables,” another study found. “The use of disposable vapes in 18-year-old vapers rose from 0.89 per cent to a staggering 56.7 per cent, whilst among 45-year-old vapers the use of disposables rose from 1.3 per cent to 6.2 per cent.”

How to square this with the now popular belief that Gen Z – those born between 1996 and 2012 – are the greenest generation ever? “Generation Z cares more about sustainable buying decisions than brand names,” the World Economic Forum told us a few months ago. “Gen Z is emerging as the sustainability generation,” Forbes announced last year.

Are they really? Single-use vapes aren’t even the half of it. According to a Vogue Business survey from 2020, more than half of Gen Z respondents “reported buying ‘most of their clothes’ from Boohoo and other fast fashion e-tailers like Asos, PrettyLittleThing and Missguided”. In a bleakly amusing parallel, the market research firm Mintel also found that “70 per cent of 16-19-year-olds agree that sustainability is an important factor when purchasing fashion items”.

There are several ways to look at this. The first and admittedly most tempting one is to lightly mock those young people, call them vain and hypocritical, then swiftly move on. Another is to wonder why older generations were so keen to paint Gen Z as the bright-eyed saviours of humanity in the first place. Perhaps it is selfish guilt, disguised as hope that our errors will be erased by those coming after us. If we believe today’s teenagers to be more virtuous, we no longer have to feel bad about having largely failed to save the planet in our own time.

Or maybe this is all focusing on the wrong end of the stick. If we want to work out why young people who purport to care about the environment are still buying cheap, fun and colourful things that are bad for the planet, the focus should be on the things, not the young people.

It is a tough argument to make without sounding patronising but, at the end of the day, the availability of products that are cheap and convenient means that people will buy them. I am not pretending to be immune to this: I eat breakfast at McDonald’s around once a week because I currently live near a McDonald’s. When I didn’t, I rarely ever ate McMuffins. We are only human.

Younger generations have grown up in a world in which fast fashion and ordering everything online is the norm. We cannot blame them for sticking to their habits, even if they are harmful to the planet. But we do have to think about what comes next.

Making our lives more sustainable will – to be blunt – make our lives less convenient again. A lot of innovations from the past decade or so should be reversed. Single-use vapes shouldn’t exist, or should at the very least become prohibitively expensive. If you want to vape, you should buy a reusable e-cigarette, no matter how ugly they look. Similarly, it shouldn’t be possible to buy dresses that cost £5 and have them delivered to your house in a day. If you want cheap clothes that look nice, you should scour eBay and charity shops for second-hand garments, even if it takes a while.

Of course, it’s tough for green activists to make those points without coming across as dour, and one shouldn’t expect political parties to make such unpopular points when hoping to get elected. But we need to try, because it will only get trickier with time.

I can tell I am no longer young because I am used to my unsightly e-cigarette and occasionally tedious charity shopping. I can live without Elf Bars and Asos. People in their mid-twenties and under have never known anything else; asking them to give up on things they have always had will be an even tougher demand.

The longer we wait, the more people will have grown up in a world that is both convenient and entirely unsustainable, and will be reluctant to let go of it. We know that Gen Z would like to live in a better world but they cannot stop being products of the environment we built for them. Their hypocrisy is our sin, not theirs.

[See also: We look to the young for a better future – but they are turning away from democracy]

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