Your reusable coffee cup might not be so green after all

These customers are abandoning single-use plastic items in favour of reusable alternatives. Bamboo drinking straws and beeswax sandwich wraps are two popular kitchen options.

Researchers looked at four types of consumer kitchenware goods to evaluate the lifetime environmental consequences of single-use plastics versus reusables: drinking straws, sandwich bags and wraps, coffee cups, and forks.

They estimated the number of times a product must be reused before its environmental consequences per use are similar to those of a comparable single-use plastic product.

Because of the energy and water needed each time a reusable item is washed, they discovered that certain reusable alternatives never reach the break-even point.

Reusable bamboo drinking straws and two reusable sandwich storage options—beeswax wrap and silicone bags—for example, never broke even in any of the study’s three environmental effect categories: energy usage, global warming potential, and water use.

“Reusable alternatives have quickly become a popular solution for replacing single-use products and helping to combat the ubiquity of disposable plastic,” says Shelie Miller, an environmental engineer at the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems in the School for Environment and Sustainability.

“However, reuse isn’t always the greatest option,” adds Miller, senior author of the study published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. “Our research found that some reusable alternatives never break even though washing them consumes more energy and produces more glasshouse gas emissions than making a single-use plastic item.”

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