An often overlooked impact of drug use

Cigarette butts, used nitrous oxide canisters and discarded disposable vapes are common sights in our parks and on our pavements. This week’s blog gives some thought to the hidden cost of these items.


In our quest to stay as up to date as possible – after all, in order for drugs education to be effective, it has to take into consideration current issues and trends – we at DSM Foundation HQ have a finely honed radar for any news story that mentions any topic relating to our work. And something a little leftfield caught our eye a few days ago: the Scottish government considering a ban on disposable vapes.


It’s an interesting dilemma. Disposable vapes are cheap to purchase so are often marketed as “starter devices”, enabling smokers to see if vaping is the nicotine replacement form that will help them cut down and stop smoking before investing in a more sophisticated, refillable and costly device. Our experience with young people tells us that the low cost of disposable vapes makes them more appealing to them too.


But while the financial cost may be small, the environmental cost is anything but. There has been a big push towards reusable water bottles and coffee cups instead of their single use counterparts, yet it seems to need a leap in order to widen the principle into other areas of life. Disposable vapes are not only single-use plastic but also contain valuable materials such as lithium and copper in their electronic components. They should be recycled but instead are often found scattered on pavements and in parks. And they aren’t alone in the drugs world: broken glass from alcohol bottles and used nitrous oxide canisters and cylinders are also common sights when out walking.


And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Drug Science (which, as the name suggests, is a science-led drugs charity) recently ran a webinar on this very topic, and the environmental impact of street drugs was laid bare by Oslo University’s Dr David Rodriguez Goyes and Essex University’s Professor Nigel South, both experts in the field. We heard terms new to us: narcodegradation and narcotrafficking, which describe the theft of nature and displacement of communities to further the drugs trade. And another even more powerful expression: ecocide, the mass destruction of ecosystems which is almost impossible to reverse.


What was very clear is that the balance is skewed. Just like demand for fossil fuels by industrialized nations is fuelling global warming which has led to prolonged droughts in countries that have an almost invisible carbon footprint such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, it is predominantly a desire for recreational drugs in the global north that is causing huge problems on many levels – environmental, societal to name just two aspects – in the global south.


These are complex and deep-rooted problems with no easy solutions. But it is important to remember that drug use goes way beyond the experience of the user. It is more like a ripple effect, or the aftershocks of an earthquake, rumbling far and wide, and with the potential to have impacts that are longlasting and lifechanging.


For more information: The United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime has produced a booklet on drugs and environment which can be accessed at