Reusable vs. Disposable Cups

July 19, 2007

Not all cups are created equal. According the Institute of Lifecycle Environmental Assessment
a reusable cup must be used a certain number of times to make up for the energy used to create it.

Reusable vs. Disposable Cups

The chart shows how you must use a ceramic mug 39 times to make it more efficient than a paper disposable cup. Read a full article about this at Make Magazine online.

This chart though doesn’t address things like these vessel’s impact on the planet once they break or are thrown away. The disposable cups take up more space in landfills and cannot be recycled like the reusable cups. I find myself using my steel and plastic reusable mugs at more than coffee shops. I get some strange looks at restaurants where they automatically just give you a disposable cup. I use it as an opportunity to say, “No thanks I don’t want a disposable cup because they come from trees/oil.”

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4 Responses to “Reusable vs. Disposable Cups”


  1. [...] Green Starbucks claims that if fifty customers a day in every Starbucks store brought their own mug, the resulting savings from unused disposables would be the equivalent of saving 300,000 trees from ending up in landfills every year. [...]


  2. Some very good points made. It is easy to villify the humble paper cup without actually looking at the situation holistically. The subject is not as clear cut as you might think!

  3. JR Says:

    The problem with the analysis that this table is based on is basic arithmatic – it is off by a factor of over 100.

    If the original energy content of a ceramic reusable is 14MJ/cup and the energy content of each foam disposable used is .2MJ/cup, then the “break even” point is equal to 14/0.2 = 70 reuses – Not 1000 as the table indicates.

    After 70 reuses, the amount of energy “consumed” using a disposable cup exceeds the energy used to create the ceramic.

    Bottom line – This error has been repeated across many different sites – and mis-states the situation. Before we worry about the complex nuances of the situation we have an obligation to get the basic math right.

    Just repeating and “discussing” – with out realizing thre is a basic error – is the wedge that is used against the conservation movment over and over again.

  4. Original Says:

    The original article (http://sustainability.tufts.edu/downloads/Comparativelifecyclecosts.pdf) takes into account the cost of 0.18MJ/cup for each wash, leading to the estimate of 1006 uses to break even. This calculation is extremely sensitive to the efficiency of the dishwasher.
    The model still does not consider other factors such as shipping, packaging, or energy required to manufacture detergent; energy required to haul the disposable cup to the landfill, and a thousand other ancillary factors, and is necessarily a simplification. The original study concludes that in the grand scheme of things, your choice doesn’t much matter.


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