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Cups Single Use (Disposable) vs. Reusable - An Honest Comparison

Cups: Single Use (Disposable) vs.
Reusable - An Honest Comparison
by David Evans February 01, 2018
Is investing in a reusable cup or bottle really going to lower your environmental
This is a valid question and there has been confusion around this topic as there are many
di ering opinions.
In this post I will answer three main questions:
1. What’s the environmental impact of disposable cups?
2. What’s the environmental impact of reusable cups?
3. When are reusable alternatives better than single use cups?
Before answering any questions it’s important to understand why this is even a debate.
Varying opinions on whether disposable cups are worse or better for the environment
than reusable alternatives stem from unfair comparisons.
A few reasons why people may be comparing apples to oranges:
1. Types - di erent types of disposable cups (paper, plastic, styrofoam) have varying
impacts. Likewise, so do their reusable counterparts. This makes it di cult to make
blanket statements like “all disposable cups are worse than reusable alternatives”
2. Focus - you can paint a di erent picture depending on which aspect of
environmental impact you’re focusing on. Energy use, natural resource use,
pollution, and emissions, are just a few of the di erent areas you can compare. To be
fair, you have to consider the complete environmental impact of disposable vs
reusable, not just one aspect.
3. Other - Other variables such as the technology used to manufacture the cup or how
long it traveled to get the place of sale also change the environmental impact.
They key indicators of environmental impact
There are several variables to compare when it comes to rating the overall environmental
impact of a product. Here are the main 3 areas and some of the considerations of each:
Production - What it takes to make the product
Input of energy and natural resources
Transportation of raw materials and nished product
Emissions and other pollutants from manufacturing
Use - How use of the product impacts humans or the environment
Impact on human health
Lifespan of the product
Environmental impact of use (if any) - example: washing of reusable cups
Post Use - How disposal of the product impacts the environment
Pollution of natural environment
Emissions from disposal (gasses from breakdown in land ll or incineration)
Cost of recycling
The total impact of a product can be calculated using our simpli ed formula:
Total Environmental Impact = Cost of Production + Cost of Use + Cost of Post
The key performance indicators
There are also several di erent types of environmental impact. The most common types
and the causes they are linked to include:
Emissions - global warming, air pollution
Natural Resource Use - deforestation, biodiversity loss, global warming
Pollution - biodiversity loss, degradation of natural environment
Some people may weight one factor as more important than another depending on their
opinions of which environmental issue is most pressing.
The most common comparison for environmental impact is energy used to create,
distribute, and dispose of the product.
Energy input is considered to be the primary indicator of environmental impact because it
is tied to almost all other factors. It takes natural resources such as coal to create energy
and once burned it contributes to emissions that fuel global warming.
In this comparison of disposable vs reusable cups I will draw from several studies about
energy use in each phase: production, use, and post use.
It’s important to note that there are other considerations when buying a product such as
the social responsibility of the company producing it. I’ll touch on these considerations in
my summary.
Cost of Production
In general, producing one disposable cup has a lower environmental impact than
producing one reusable cup or bottle.
Measurement of Energy Input Needed (kJ/Cup) to Produce 1 Unit:
Producing a styrofoam or paper cup requires much less energy input than reusable
alternatives such as plastic, glass, or ceramic.
This probably isn’t a big surprise to you. Disposable cups are smaller, lighter, and easier to
make, while their counterparts require more input of resources and energy.
Proponents of single use cups may stop here and claim that disposables are more energy
e cient and therefore more environmentally friendly. But the most critical evaluation
happens in the next two phases: Use and Post Use.
In general, when comparing 1 cup to 1 reusable cup, the production of disposable cups is
in fact more eco friendly.
Cost of Use
It’s clear that the production of one disposable cup has a lower impact than one reusable
alternative. But if you use over 300 disposables in a year, doesn’t that add up to be a
greater impact than using only one reusable cup?
To calculate and compare the average cost of use for disposable cups vs reusables we
have to answer one key question:
How many disposables are equal to the continued use of one reusable alternative?
The quick answer: this number ranges from 6 to 127 depending on various factors such
as the type of reusable cup and how it is used.
Key Considerations - the wash
A key factor in this aspect of the environmental impact of disposable vs reusable comes
down to washing.
While disposables have no energy input necessary for their use, reusables do. In order to
continue reusing a glass, plastic, or ceramic cup it needs to be washed which will
contribute to its overall environmental impact.
Of course, there are di erent ways to wash cups and some are more eco friendly than
In general, washing by hand is more energy e cient than using a dishwasher. And
washing with cold water is more energy e cient than washing with hot water.
The safest estimate to use is the energy use of a common household dishwasher.
Cost of Use: Summary
Considering the energy input to produce and to wash we can calculate a “break even”
point, where using a reusable cup becomes as e cient as using a disposable cup.
The formula:
Break even number of uses = (Energy of Reusable cup)/(Energy of Disposable
cup - Energy of wash)
The results:
Main Takeaways
Glass and plastic are the most energy e cient materials for reusable cups
When replacing paper cups it takes less than 20 uses to become more e cient
When replacing styrofoam cups (because energy input for this type is so low) it takes
up to 127 uses
Most comparisons of disposable vs reusable cups end here. Although we’ve already
determined that reusable cups are more eco friendly after continued use, we still don’t
have the whole story.
What if all disposable cups are recycled and their materials are used over and over again?
We need to consider the environmental impact of disposal to have a complete
understanding of how disposables stack up to reusables.
Cost of Disposal (post use)
The main factor to consider in disposal is how often cups are disposed of and how. Are
they recyclable? What’s the impact of recycling them, sending them to the land ll, or other
Are disposables recyclable?
Disposable cups are disposed of in mass and the most common type, used for co ee, are
di cult to recycle. The vast majority of paper cups we use daily for takeaway drinks have
a plastic lining in them that prevents to paper cup from becoming saturated and falling
This plastic lining must be separated from the paper in the recycling process which makes
recycling them di cult and costly. In fact, most recycling centers are not equipped to
process them.
The result: Unfortunately right now only about 1% of disposable cups are
What is the cost of disposing single use cups?
It’s di cult to calculate the cost of disposing single use cups because of various scenarios.
However, we should consider the following:
Collecting and transporting used cups is energy intensive (think trash trucks)
Once in a land ll cups may breakdown slowly in the right conditions but their plastics
will take hundreds of years resulting in land lls that are wastelands
Greenhouse gas release from land lls is a major contributor to global warming
Cups that don’t make it to land lls pollute the natural environment
Incinerating disposable waste will recoup some of the energy but also results in
emissions that contribute to global warming and air pollution
The sheer volume of disposable cups thrown away on a daily basis is hard to fathom
(Starbucks alone produces 4 Billion each year)
How do reusables stack up?
Ceramic Cups - very little to no recycle potential but can last to thousands of uses if cared
for and has little to no environmental impact in land lls
Plastic Alternatives - Many plastic alternatives can be recycled and will last for
thousands of uses
Glass Cups - Can be recycled, will last for thousands of uses, and has little to no negative
environmental impact in land lls
The bottom line
Reusable cups have a longer lifespan so their overall disposal impact is much lower than
single use cups.
Most reusable cups can be recycled. Glass and ceramic are less of a threat to the natural
environment because they will break down over time and do not contain synthetic
chemicals, unlike styrofoam or the plastic lining of paper cups which do not biodegrade.
Disposal of single use cups poses other threats such as the cost of waste collection and
the accumulation of these products in our oceans, when they are not taken to the land ll
or incinerated.
While it takes more energy to produce reusable cups, because they have a longer lifespan
their overall environmental impact is much less than disposable cups.
Each type of disposable and reusable cup has its own variations in its impact on the
environment. Some are better than others.
In general, the number of uses needed for a reusable bottle to be more eco friendly
ranges from 6 to 127.
Glass cups are the best alternative. If you’re foregoing paper co ee cups by using a
glass mug, you can be having a positive environmental impact in as few as 6 uses.
Reusable plastic cups are close behind glass. The break even point for reusable plastic
cups can be as low as 7 uses.
Ceramic cups are also a good alternative but it will take more uses for them to become
more environmentally friendly than disposable cups (as few as 15).
When assessing the sustainability of disposable cups vs reusables, it’s clear that reusables
are more eco friendly when used repeatedly.
Although the impact of the production of single use cups is lower than reusables, the
impact of their use and disposal is much higher.
Every use of a reusable cup is one sip closer to a more sustainable world.
If you're ready to reduce your reliance on single use cups, check out our recommended
reusable alternatives.
1. Energy and CO2 Analysis of Drinking Cups
2. Disposable Co ee Cup Waste Reduction Study
3. Reusable and Disposable Cups: An Energy Based Evaluation
4. Paper vs Polystyrene: A Complex Choice
Thanks for your post. I have been trying to nd such comparison, esp with reusable items
and water usage data. It is really great to see this article pull together a more wholistic
picture in the whole environmental sustainability discussion.
— Jessica Tan
March 21, 2019
Hey thanks, good read!
Any comment on stainless steel? I found this article because I’m questioning my reusable
bottle after hearing about re nery pollution in manufacturing heavy countries. Given how
common stainless bottles and mugs are, I’m surprised the article omits them entirely.
— James
March 21, 2019
In the ‘Key Considerations – the wash’, section it would be interesting to know the
environmental imapct of the detergent discharge.
— Mike
March 21, 2019
I like what you guys are up too. Such clever work
and exposure! Keep up the great works guys I’ve added you guys to my personal blogroll.
Hey there! I’ve been following your blog for a while
now and nally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a
shout out from Houston Texas! Just wanted to say keep up
the excellent job! I will immediately grasp your rss as I
can’t to nd your e-mail subscription link or e-newsletter service.
Do you’ve any? Please permit me understand so that I may subscribe.
Thanks. http://cspan.org
— Kristy
January 08, 2019
Sound reasoning and very informative. Completely overlooked the cost of washing so it’s
nice to see it included.
— Vince
January 08, 2019
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