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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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  • 2
    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, 2016 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, 2016 at 21:26
  • @Ricky when you said "it's a wash" I assumed you were making a punny argument for reusability.
    – WBT
    Apr 5, 2016 at 19:37
  • @WBT: Kind of ...
    – Ricky
    Apr 5, 2016 at 23:22
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    It depends - if you need to use it just once or there is a high risk that cup can be easily broken (football match etc.), paper/plastic is the best, but if you need to keep it and drink from it everyday, the ceramic/glass is the best. Each of them is sustainable in different situations.
    – Dee
    Apr 25, 2016 at 12:13

4 Answers 4

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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

versus

  • 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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 at 21:13
  • 2
    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, 2017 at 18:06
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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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In long run if you just rinse out the mug..... it's a good way to save on a lot of cups. But plastic is not used for hot beverages and paper cups

Yes. Environmentally ceramics requires clays and baking. If you want environmentally friendly drinkware, try glass with a handle. Infinitely recyclable, made from reused glass cullet, can be laminated to prevent breaking.

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The answer for this question depends on the *Reusability factor. Both materials have a long life span(In case of ceramics it will depend on composition)

Plastic cups could be used for drinking cold water or normal water to which the plastic content does not melt and would not cause health issues. On normal and careful use plastic items could be used for a longer period of time.(ie, without being ended up as a land fill).These items will not break easily on normal household use.

In case of ceramics lets first understand its not just pottery. A ceramic is a non-metallic inorganic material composed of metal or non-metal compounds that have been formed and then hardened at very high temperatures. There are both high fired(lasts some thousand years) and low fired ceramics(Which erode faster). On the other hand, the chance of breaking ceramic is more than a normal plastic cup(*Reusability factor).

In that regard plastic is good.

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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, 2017 at 16:14

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