I am among the 63% of Ontarians who needs a jolt of caffeine to start their day. Late nights and early mornings as an undergraduate student made coffee a need to survive. As a result, I’ve been guilty of purchasing coffee in an infamous disposable cup.
Like many, I share the opinion that reusable coffee mugs are: expensive to purchase, inconvenient, annoying to carry around, a pain to wash and nearly impossible to remember with a busy on-the-go schedule.
Though their convenience is tempting, disposable coffee cups have been labelled by researchers as a representation of our over consumptive society, or better yet, “an obsession with convenience”.
I decided it was about time I did some research to answer the question, which is more environmentally friendly: disposable coffee cups or reusable mugs?
You may be surprised at the research and the answer.
First, I want to introduce a concept known as a “life-cycle analysis” to you. This concept looks at the entire life of a product, from production to disposal. This includes looking at how the raw materials were extracted, the material used to manufacture a product, the energy required, how the product is used throughout its life, maintenance, and finally how it is disposed of. It analyzes how environmentally friendly a product is.
Various life cycle analyses have been conducted on reusable coffee mugs versus disposable coffee cups. A Canadian researcher at the University of Victoria, Martin Hocking, found that ceramic reusable mugs use 70% more energy to manufacture than all other types of materials, including disposable paper and sytrofoam coffee cups, on a per-cup basis.
I will not lie to you: on the forefront, reusable coffee mugs are much more harmful to the environment than your average single-use coffee cup because of the complexity in their manufacturing. Reusable mugs are made of a variety of materials, such as plastic, ceramic, porcelain glass, and stainless steel. They are extremely energy intensive. In addition, the washing of the reusable mugs does not help their case, as this is a well-documented problem with reusable mugs. The detergents and water needed to wash the mugs requires resources over time.
Hocking also found that in order for reusable mugs to win any environmental benefits, the mugs should be used until they wear out completely and reach their full end of life. Which he estimated was after 3000 uses! This theoretically requires you to use your mug daily for 8 years straight!
According to a life-cycle comparison, it can take up to 1000 uses for a reusable mug to become more environmentally friendly than a disposable cup. This is possible, I suppose, but it also only works if you have only own one reusable mug.
Which brings me to my next point. To make matters worse, if you purchase a second, perhaps more trendy reusable mug, or if there is one lying unused and neglected in your kitchen cupboard, you may actually be doing harm to the environment.
I was curious to see how many reusable mugs are currently in my own cupboard. Guess how many I counted? Three. And to further my investigation, I decided to call my family back home. For a family of 5, we had 12 different coffee mugs between me and my two sisters.
So have you made an oath to:
- Use only one reusable coffee mug
- Donate or give away your coffee mugs if you have more than one
- Use your solo mug the full 1000-3000 times for the next eight years?
I’m not even sure if I have!
Now, let’s take a look at disposable cups, as they aren’t exactly innocent when it comes to environmental damage. The two most common types of disposable coffee cups are polyethylene cups and polystyrene cups.
Polyethylene cups consist of a chemical used to line the inside of the paper cup, allowing the product to be both water and heat resistant. The material is composed of paper material component, from paperboard, pulp product, and bleached.
Polystyrene cups, otherwise known as Styrofoam, are composed of a chemical compound styrene, petroleum, and are formed by chemical reaction which make them moisture resistance.
Both cups require about 80% less energy to manufacture than their reusable counter parts.
However, in North America, we consume 60% of the world’s paper cups, 400 million cups are used per day, leading to 146 billion each year, at the detriment of 50 million trees, 35 billion gallons of water, and the petrochemicals used to manufacture these cups could have heated 8,300 homes for one year.
It quickly adds up, because we use so many disposable coffee cups on a daily basis, the resources used for their production far surpasses reusable mugs.
Annnnd, I’m not finished yet.
Disposable coffee cups are designed for one-time use, with an average lifespan of 45 minutes, whereas reusable mugs are designed to last for 3000 times, instead of just once, which gives reusable cups the upper hand because they are designed for durability.
And last but not least, is the problem of litter. To this day, I have never once seen a reusable mug on our streets, yet I cannot count the amount of times I have seen the common Tim Hortons disposable cup on streets, parks, trails, walkways, parking lots, and shorelines. This is worth taking into consideration when doing a life-cycle analyses.
With the purchase of disposable cups, our landfills fill. Our streets and oceans are littered. Emissions are continuously emitted. We contribute to and support the bigger picture problem: the never-ending throw-away society.
the alternative is you remember your damn mug and wash it at days end.
A full commitment to reusable mugs is necessary to reap more important environmental benefits and that is habit change and reducing waste at the source. A habit shift to reducing instead of consuming ultimately makes more sense than continuously supporting our wasteful habit, even if the upfront energy-intensive process seems worse.
So, the next time you believe you are reducing, perhaps take a minute and really think about it. Do you really need that:
- Extra cloth bag?
- Extra reusable coffee mug?
- Extra stainless steel water bottle?
What I hope to leave with you is to critically think about what you are buying, using, and what you think you are doing to help the environment.
My message is simple.
Consume less and reuse more.
Will you lug a mug?
By: Jessica Correa, M.A. Sustainability Studies- Founder, Random Acts of Green