Ceramic, Paper or Styrofoam? What Coffee Cup Is the Most Eco-Friendly?

Apr 1, 2017

At first, you might make the completely reasonable assumption that a ceramic coffee mug is much more eco-friendly than a disposable one. Would you be right? The answer is not as simple as you’d think.

Using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as a tool to sum up the total energy used in making each kind of coffee cup gives us some pretty interesting results. Life Cycle Assessment sums up and quantifies every ounce of energy usage for creating, transporting and disposing of a good.

That means: How much energy did it take to mine the materials? How much energy to transport them to the factory? How much energy to manufacture? How much energy to transport to the consumer? How much energy did the garbage truck use to haul it away?

If you put a number of energy units on each of these factors and add them up, you will get a good number to go by in determining which kind of coffee cup is truly most eco-friendly. Any guesses on which one it is?

If you guessed the ceramic coffee mug, you are wrong. As it turns out, the styrofoam coffee cups take significantly less energy to produce, ship and dispose of. According to Michael Hocking’s 1994 Life Cycle Comparison of coffee cup types, you’d need to use a ceramic coffee mug over 1,000 times before the “energy per use” equals that of a styrofoam cup.

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That number seems high, but remember, a styrofoam cup is reusable and needs to be washed. Heating water takes energy. Add up all that water heating over the life cycle of a ceramic mug and you have yourself quite a large number. Most coffee mugs break before reaching 1,000 uses, meaning energy per use will rarely be less than a styrofoam cup.

Styrofoam cups also trump paper cups in energy usage, which would be an obvious runner up for eco-friendly cups due to biodegradability. As it turns out, turning petroleum into air-filled styrofoam cups take a lot less energy than turning pulp into paper coffee cups. Hey, at least styrofoam production does not cut down trees.

Okay, now that we have brought home the point that styrofoam uses less carbon, it’s time to widen the picture. Although we just discussed how styrofoam uses less carbon, it actually isn’t the most ecologically sound. Your initial assumptions may be correct after all. When we look at the broad scheme of things styrofoam still has plenty of ecological drawbacks.

To name one, styrofoam doesn’t decompose. It deteriorates, though the molecules remain intact for millennia and cause plenty of harm, polluting our oceans and harming animals. Greenhouse gases aren’t the only emissions in the picture either; styrofoam production releases pentane, a gas that causes ozone pollution. If you add up the atmospheric and landfill pollution, styrofoam cups suddenly look a lot worse than ceramic.

There is another caveat in favor of ceramic mugs. The majority of the carbon footprint for ceramic mugs comes from the energy it takes to heat the water for washing. That’s assuming you wash after every use and use hot water every time.

Typically, however, people will reuse their coffee mugs for a second refill of coffee without washing. Also, many people will wash without using hot water. Ceramic mugs might also be washed in more energy efficient dishwashers, drastically cutting down on the carbon in the Life Cycle Assessment.

Ceramic coffee mugs take the cake

Final Results: Ceramic coffee mugs take the cake. Although ceramics are energy-intensive to make and wash, you can lower these numbers by washing with cold water or using an energy efficient dishwasher. Ceramic production produces fewer pollutants and does not leave waste in the ecosystem forever like styrofoam.

Styrofoam cups use much less carbon, but cause a tremendous amount of pollution. The styrofoam degrades into small, non-biodegradable pieces that get into animal’s bodies, causing health problems and death. The other effects of styrofoam cups make them a decidedly un-eco-friendly option.

Paper cups

Paper cups are an okay choice, although not without tremendous drawbacks. Their production entails mass deforestation and the energy used for production is a lot more than styrofoam. While you may be able to compost them, they are often produced with a coating that prevents this. They are less likely to harm the ecosystem in disposal than styrofoam, but still not such an eco-friendly choice.

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In the past, other materials which were used to make coffee cups were clay, wood, strengthened glass, metal, ceramic and porcelain. For the best results, use a reusable ceramic mug. Do not wash between refills, and be conscientious in your water and energy use while washing. While not the most low-energy to produce, all ecological factors considered, reusable ceramics are still produce the lowest impact.