What is the most environmentally friendly way of drinking from a cup or mug? Reusable cups are usually the preferred method as long as the cups get used a lot. As for disposable cups, the main three choices are paper, styrofoam, and plastic. Plastic cups are the cheapest to purchase but they can’t be used for hot drinks.
Pricewise, plastic cups cost $11 for 1000. Styrofoam costs $25 for 1000. Paper cups cost $80-120 for 1000. 100% compostable paper cups costs around $100 for 1000 made from natural corn starch. These prices are taken from Office Max based on a company pricing research done by Joanne.
Paper is actually more expensive but is biodegradable. Paper production can cause almost twice as much CO2 emissions and energy consumption as creating plastic or styrofoam products. Some paper cups are also not recyclable if they have a wax coating on them. Producing paper cups can also take more material by weight to produce for proper insulation compared to styrofoam and plastic cups. In this study done by Rowan University, the question of whether paper, plastic, or styrofoam cups were environmentally friendly was researched.
Styrofoam cups can insulate very well but they can break into small pieces that can be bad for children and animals. Styrofoam is created from benzene and other chemicals that can be bad for you and contribute to smog and global warming. It is not biodegradable and contributes to landfill pileup because it never deteriorates. Started in the beginning of 2007 in the city of San Francisco, restaurants were recently required to switch out using styrofoam containers and any other forms of polystyrene because they were environmentally unfriendly. Oakland, Berkeley, Portland, Santa Monica, Santa Cruz, and Seattle are some other cities that have banned styrofoam containers.
Plastic cups seem to be the best environmentally friendly option as most plastic cups are recyclable. If it is not recyclable, it can still be grounded up and used as a filler for other products. Plastic is also a much lighter material so there is less transportation and fuel costs needed.
Plastic cups are also the cheapest to produce.
As for comparing disposable cups vs. reusable cups, you would ideally think that reusable cups or mugs would be more environmentally friendly, but it is based on how many times the cup gets used. The materials used in creating them are significantly more than created disposable cups and it also requires using electricity, water, and soap to wash the cup after every use. This article here compares the coffee mug debate comparing the materials polystyrene, ceramic, and stainless steel. The conclusion is that a ceramic mug has the lowest material intensity but only if it has been used at least 46 times. In this study done at the University of Victoria in 1994, a reusable cup is compared to disposable cups but takes into consideration the energy used by a dishwasher to wash the cup.
Here is my conclusion of what to use. Obviously at home, you should always use glass, steel, or ceramic cups and mugs. Glass is probably the best choice. For the office, bringing in your own steel or ceramics mug is the best choice. As far as general use disposal cups, using plastic cups is the best choice because it is the most environmentally friendly compared to styrofoam and paper. It is the cheapest to produce as well as to buy but it is only ideal for cold drinks. For hot drinks you would probably need styrofoam cups as well so a mixture of using both plastic and styrofoam is probably my recommendation.