are reusable cups better for the environment

Reusable VS. Disposable – Which one is better for the environment?

Did you know that over 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed in the world daily?
If you’re a coffee drinker, no doubt you’ve picked up a coffee in a disposable cup at some point or another. 

The critiques against reusable coffee mugs are understandable. They can be 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 labeled by researchers as a representation of our over consumptive society, or better yet, “an obsession with convenience”.

Time for some myth-busting 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. 

reusable coffee cups environment

First, let’s learn about the concept of life-cycle analysis.

It 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.

Next, we will explore the various life cycle analyses that have been conducted comparing reusable coffee mugs to disposable coffee cups.

earth hour

Are Reusable Cups Better For The Environment?

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 styrofoam coffee cups, on a per-cup basis.

Reusable coffee mugs are much more harmful to the environment than your average single-use coffee cup because of the complexity of their manufacturing.

To-go cups are made of a variety of materials, such as plastic, ceramic, porcelain glass, and stainless steel. They are extremely energy-intensive to produce.

In addition, the washing of the reusable mugs does not help their case. The detergents and water needed to wash the mugs require further 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 3,000 uses! 

This theoretically requires you to use your mug daily for 8 years straight!

are reusable cups better for the environment

Reusable Coffee Cups

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 but it also only works if you have only owned one reusable mug. 

Consider this and be honest… how many reusable to-go cups do you have in your cupboards? How often are you purchasing reusables and are they likely to reach 1000 uses? 

The Global Reusable Food Packaging Market is projected to grow from USD 13.19 billion in 2019 to USD 29.32 billion in 2027.  This increase in the consumption of eco-friendly tools requires further scrutiny. Knowing all this, would you consider the following: 

  •  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!
are reusable cups better for the environment

The Environmental Impact of Disposable Cups

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 components, from paperboard, pulp product, and bleached.

Polystyrene cups, otherwise known as Styrofoam, are composed of the chemical compound styrene, and petroleum, and are formed by a chemical reaction that makes them moisture resistant. Both cups require about 80% less energy to manufacture than their reusable counterparts.

North  Americans consume 60% of the world’s paper cups.  

  • 400 million cups are used per day, leading to 146 billion each year. 
  • These cups require resources of 50 million trees and 35 billion gallons of water.
  • 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 surpass reusable mugs. 

Disposable coffee cups are designed for one-time use, with an average lifespan of 45 minutes.  Comparatively, reusable mugs are designed to last for 3000 uses which gives them the upper hand because they are designed for durability.

disposable coffee cups

Single-Use Plastics end up as plastic pollution

Compare the number of times you’ve seen a disposable cup discarded as litter versus its reusable counterpart.  This is worth taking into consideration when doing a life-cycle analysis. With the purchase of disposable cups, our landfills fill. Our streets and oceans are littered.  Emissions are continuously emitted. 

We have the power to contribute to and support the bigger picture.
You can either support the never-ending throw-away society. OR the alternative is you remember your mug and wash it at day’s end.

Refusing single-use plastic is a Green Act you can log on our Mobile App!

reusable vs disposable cups

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 habits, even if the upfront energy-intensive process seems worse.

Interested in this topic? Read our blog “How to change people’s behaviour, according to experts

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?
  • Back-up reusable coffee mug?
  • Another stainless steel water bottle?


Critically think about what you are buying, using, and what you think you are doing to help the environment.

Our simple takeaway is this: Consume less and reuse more. Will you lug a mug?   


Jessica Correa

With over 10 years learning, fighting, and working in the environmental field, Jessica brings knowledge, leadership, passion, and vision to the Random Acts of Green team.

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