There’s good news and bad news when it comes to beverage cups used at concerts, sporting events and other large gatherings: A fierce competition is underway to be seen as the sustainable container of choice, with each cup vendor making its own claims of environmental superiority. Obviously, they can’t all be best.
In many respects, this is a great competition to have. Reusable cups, barely a blip two years ago, are catching on in public venues. What was once almost unheard of — beer, cocktail and soda cups at ballgames or rock concerts, each undergoing multiple use cycles — is gaining momentum. As arenas and stadiums reopen post-pandemic, several are embracing a new environmental ethic, including promoting both recycling and reuse, with those ubiquitous 16-ounce cups near the top of most lists.
But are reusable cups, designed to be washed and transported multiple times, actually better than the recyclable versions?
This is no mere bar bet. Billions of single-use cups are left on the ground or placed in trash bins at concerts and sporting events each year. Even where waste-collection bins exist, most people don’t hit the right ones, if they bother at all. Moreover, many recyclable cups are stuffed with other trash — food wrappers, half-eaten hotdogs, who knows what — making them difficult if not impossible to recycle in large quantities.
A fierce competition is underway to be seen as the sustainable container of choice. Obviously, they can’t all be best.
For years, the plastics industry pushed the recycling of single-use plastic cups as the greenest choice. More recently, compostable bioplastic cups became popular at many venues. But both formats have seen lackluster results, with the vast majority still ending up in landfills, incinerators or the environment.
Now, two new choices are vying for a front-row seat: single-use aluminum cups that claim to be infinitely recyclable; and reusable plastic cups that claim to contribute to a circular economy.
So, how do they fare?
A soon-to-be published life-cycle analysis (LCA), conducted by University of St. Thomas engineering professor John Wentz and some grad students, landed in my inbox last week, the first apples-to-apples assessment of the cups in use. The research was funded by Upstream, a nonprofit group that helps policymakers, businesses and others accelerate waste-reduction strategies.
Source: Arena Event Beverage Cup Life-Cycle Analysis and Material Comparison, John Wentz, Ph.D. University of St. Thomas
The topline findings show that reusable cups, whatever the material, trump single-use recyclable cups, plain and simple. That may be intuitively obvious, especially when one recalls that the “3Rs” we all learned about — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — is a hierarchy. In this case: Use the fewest possible cups, reuse them as much as you can and recycle only what’s no longer of service. (Landfilling, in the 3Rs, is not an option.)
Before I go further, I have a…