Many years ago I read that plastic cups, like this:

Plastic cup

are more environmental friendly than ceramic mugs, like this:

Ceramic mug

This is rather counter-intuitive. If I remember correctly, I believe the argument was that ceramic mugs take a lot of energy to produce...

Is this true?

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    I had no idea there was actually a debate about this, but seeing some of the evidence that THelper shows, supporting that the ceramic cup needs about 350 uses to outcompete the disposable plastic cups in greenhouse gases emissions, it gives those new Keep Cups and co. (i.e. reusable durable plastic cups) a great wrap! I even saw one for sale today that was plant-based... Would be interesting to factor that other option in two. – stragu Apr 3 '16 at 8:52
  • As the other two answers demonstrate, it's a wash. Naturally, when it's a wash, you have to consider the psychological factor. Drinking from a plastic cup is in very poor taste, you shouldn't do it. – Ricky Apr 4 '16 at 21:26
  • @Ricky when you said "it's a wash" I assumed you were making a punny argument for reusability. – WBT Apr 5 '16 at 19:37
  • @WBT: Kind of ... – Ricky Apr 5 '16 at 23:22
  • Also if we're talking about energy expended and possible waste/environmental damage, the launching of missiles is enough to dwarf any differences between these two at an individual scale. – WBT Apr 5 '16 at 23:32

It's correct that the production of 1 ceramic mug requires much more material and energy than the production of 1 plastic cup, but this isn't a fair comparison. Plastic cups are generally used once or perhaps twice and then disposed of. A ceramic mug is likely to be used several hundreds of times before it breaks and is thrown away.

Let's assume you use a plastic cup twice a day and then trow it away. Alternatively you can use a ceramic mug twice a day and then wash it. Let's also assume the lifetime of a ceramic mug is 5 years. This means you need to compare:

  • 5 * 365 * production, transport and disposal costs of plastic cup


  • 1 * production, transport and disposal costs of ceramic mug + 5 * 365 energy and material costs of water and soap used for rinsing the mug.

I don't have the actual numbers to do the full calculation (they would also depend on the type of plastic cup and ceramic mug and how you rinse the mug), but you can see that in the long run the ceramic mug becomes more environmentally friendly provided the energy and material costs for rinsing are less than the production, transport and disposal costs of 1 plastic cup, which should be the case if you don't use lots of heated water.

There are several articles on the Internet that do make calculations like this. Most articles compare ceramic mugs with paper cups but the idea is the same. Other assumptions in those articles may also vary from what I've written above (e.g. different lifetime of ceramic mug, transport and disposal is sometimes not included, or an article may only compare energy use instead of full environmental impact). The result is that those articles have different outcomes. Nevertheless most articles I've seen conclude that the ceramic mug wins if it's lifetime is long enough and you rinse the mug efficiently.

More info:

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    What about a reusable plastic mug then? Image – Alfro Apr 3 '16 at 14:04
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    @DarrelHoffman Most paper cups have a thin polyethylene layer which makes it difficult to recycle (see also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_cup#Recycling). That's why there is little difference between the environmental impact of paper and plastic cups. – THelper Apr 3 '16 at 19:28
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    @Alfro Difficult to say. I haven't seen any studies on this, but my bet would be that a reusable plastic mug has a comparable or perhaps even slightly lower environmental footprint than a ceramic mug, provided the plastic mug is properly recycled at the end of it's life. – THelper Apr 3 '16 at 19:35
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    @THelper, black coffee here, and no dishwasher at work. Mine gets a weekly wash whether or not it needs it. – Chris H Apr 3 '16 at 21:13
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    And why would you throw away a perfectly useful mug if it breaks? Break it further and use it in the bottom of a pot to keep a plant draining. Glue it and use it as a pencil cup or other holder. See if there are local landscapers who can use busted mugs as rip-rap. – Dawn Feb 17 '17 at 18:06

You've pictured a disposable plastic cup. If you assume that you can use it a few times, then you might consider that you get through one a day. A ceramic cup lasts until you drop it. The cup in your photo is only for cold drinks anyway. Paper or expanded polystyrene are usually used for hot drinks.

This link runs the numbers:

Chart comparing paper/polystyrene/ceramic cups Table comparing paper/polystyrene/ceramic cups

In summary, ceramic is best.

If you're clumsy or use a lot of hot water in washing the ceramic cup, you might just be better off using a polystyrene cup, maybe one per day. But if you get takeaway coffee it will come in a paper cup which is much worse.

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The answer for this question depends on the reusability factor. The lifetime of plastic cups is very low since it could be used only few times. But even if molding Ceramic cups require more energy considering that it can be used for years before it breaks, Ceramic cups are more ecofriendly than plastic cups.

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  • Some things that this answer doesn't consider are: ceramic mugs also use resources such as water & detergent between uses, in addition to a towel to dry the mug after it has been washed. All this has an impact on the environment. If plastic cups are not recycled they end up occupying a land fill site or they get broken down into micro fragments which can end up in the ocean, which is another environmental impact. – Fred Feb 23 '17 at 16:14

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