Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why throw away something that will be on the Earth for at least 1,000 years for 5 minutes of convenience?

What is more environmentally friendly: reusable containers (i.e. coffee mugs, food containers, shopping bags) or disposable ones? The answer seems straightforward, but a more detailed analysis reveals the complexity of our choices.

Let's focus on coffee cups as an example. If your number one concern is reducing landfill waste, then reusable ceramic or stainless steel coffee cups is the way to go. If you are concerned about water use, energy use and global warming then the answer is less straightforward. Assuming you wash your mug after every use, ceramic mugs can use more water per use than it takes to manufacture a Styrofoam or paper cup from scratch. Energy use is even more complex. On average, it takes 70 times more energy to produce a ceramic mug than to manufacture a Styrofoam cup. Making a stainless steel mug is even more energy intensive. Furthermore, if you wash your mug in a dishwasher with hot water then the energy disparity is even worse. It is also good to know how your local energy is produced and where it comes from. Cleaning your reusable mug takes energy, so it is important to know if your energy is clean and renewable or fossil fuel based.

Pound-for-pound, making Styrofoam is also energy intensive. However, Styrofoam is very light so you can produce a lot of individual cups with a relatively small amount of energy. Either way, Styrofoam is polystyrene which is petroleum-based and pretty nasty stuff. Once disposed of, Styrofoam can linger and pollute our environment for centuries.

And what about paper cups? Of course, they are made from trees so it is important to know what trees and how they are managed. Additionally, paper products are heavy and the greenhouse gas emissions to transport them are exponentially more than transporting Styrofoam. Finally, if the paper cups are landfilled instead of recycled then they emit methane (a potent greenhouse gas) as they decompose.

So, is it more environmentally friendly to use a reusable coffee mug? The answer seems to be yes, but I guess it depends on what part of the environment you are most concerned about. For me, it comes down to one basic question, "why would I throw away something that will be on the Earth for at least 1,000 years for five minutes of convenience?"

With that in mind, I prefer reusable mugs. I lessen the ecological footprint associated with this practice by:
  • keeping and using my mug for many years. I still have my first reusable mug from 1993.
  • washing my mug by hand and in cold water
  • using environmentally-friendly phosphate-free soap
When I must use disposable products, I purchase biodegradable/compostable ones.
What do you prefer? Why? Have other ideas, comments, or tips? Please share them!