EcoTip: Coffee cups - spilling the beans

Which is the most Treehugger to drink one's java from? Ceramic, stryofoam, paper? Ceramic, you scream – how can someone be so dumb as to ask that? Some serious scientific and academic rigour has been applied to just this question. By no less of a studious group than the Dutch Ministry of Environment. Their conclusions? Not what you might first suspect. You see, its like "paper, scissors, rock". In some circumstances one might win over the others but then, can in turn, be trumped itself.It seems that a ceramic cup is a real greedy vessel when it comes to energy and water consumption and not much better as a contributor to air pollution and solid waste.

With energy you'd have to use the ceramic cup 640 times before it would equal a polystyrene cup and 294 times to equal a paper/cardboard one. With air pollution it takes 1,800 uses to beat the polystyrene and 48 to thrash the paper/cardboard. Likewise you would have to drink 126 and 99 cups respectively for the ceramic to compete with polystyrene and paper/cardboard on the waste issue. And water? Sorry, just the use of a ceramic cup totals more than the entire life cycle water consumption of the other two. Grim, huh? Ah, but like a good movie, there is always a twist at the end.

In this story the 'good guy' ceramic cup wins hands down in the functional use category. Designed for a long, durable life it can be used for well over 3,000 slurping sessions. Whereas the other cups are intended for trivial single use. Thus their lightweight, non-durable, disposable construction means they can perform well, measured against the other environmental criteria.

This was all worked out using a method called LCA (they're everywhere, these blasted 3 letter acronyms) or Life Cycle Assessment/Analysis. It tracks the full life of a product or service from its birth to the end of its useful life. The material's extraction, fabrication, transport and distribution, use and disposal. It is not an exact science and results depend greatly on where the boundaries are drawn. But it does help add some cold objective vision to often emotional issues. For more info on LCA visit ::PRé Consultants, who have been at the cutting edge for years.

In the meantime keep on using your ceramic cup, safe in the knowledge that over the long term, it is the TH choice. Ed note: And heck, why not buy one of TreeHugger's founders most excellent ceramic cup that looks like a paper cup (see picture) at [by WM]