Disposable or reusable: which is better?

When it comes to eco-friendly choices, things aren’t always as they seem. Often we only think about the eco footprint of disposing of an item, rather than how eco-friendly it was to produce in the first place. Weighing up carbon footprint vs waste disposal can be a tricky one…

reusable ceramic mugs


OK, let’s start with the humble cup. You’re out and about and you fancy a coffee / tea / hot chocolate: what’s the most efficient option? Is it better to carry your own reusable cup, go to a cafe where they stock recyclable take-out cups, or enjoy your drink sitting in the cafe so that you can use a ceramic cup?

Somewhat upsettingly, the most energy-efficient cup to produce is actually the hard-to-dispose-of “styrofoam” cup. According to one study, a ceramic cup needs to be used more than 1000 times to make its production more energy-efficient than a styrofoam cup. It may sound like a lot, but in actual fact that's only like having one tea or coffee per day for three years. Most of us would probably get through an awful lot more than that (and just think how many styrofoam cups you'd end up throwing away in that time!). 

But what about disposable paper cups? In comparison, ceramic ones need to be used only 39 times to make up for the higher carbon footprint of their production, and reusable plastic cups need to be used 17 times to make them better than a disposable paper cup.  

kindle e-readers

Newspapers and books

OK, how about this: is it better to read a physical newspaper or to catch up with the news online? The downside of print media is that it means producing a lot of paper, but then a phone, tablet or e-reader takes a lot of resources to make and needs electricity to keep it going. And think about all those servers powering the websites you’re reading.

A study conducted in Sweden found that the most eco-friendly choice for a total news addict (if you’re browsing news websites for more than 30 minutes per day) is to buy a traditional newspaper. When it comes to novels, you need to get through 100 books before your e-reader becomes better for the planet than paper books. Not a problem for the What Plastic bookworms, but we can totally see that some people wouldn’t get through as many novels as us before breaking, losing or needing to upgrade their e-reader (and also the feel and smell of a real book is something quite lovely, don’t you agree?).

reusable organic cotton shopping bag

Shopping bags

We’re slightly biased here given that we sell these fantastic string bags, but what do you think? Is it better to use a plastic "bag for life" or an organic cotton bag?

A bag for life needs to be used eight times before its carbon footprint is lower than that of a normal single-use carrier bag – not much of a challenge. But it's still made of plastic, so it'll still pollute the planet when it eventually gets thrown away. An organic cotton bag needs to be used 149 times before it’s better for the planet than a single-use carrier bag. It’s a lot more, but it’s only the equivalent of one shopping trip per week for 3 years. We'd expect organic cotton bags to last way longer than that, particularly as they can be washed with your laundry to keep them in good nick, and in that time you’ll have avoided wasting hundreds of single-use bags. On top of that, they're biodegradable which means they aren't a pollution problem at the end of their life.

Are you surprised?

We reckon some of these stats might not be quite what you expected. They certainly highlight how practical plastic and "disposables" are, how easy they are to produce and how cheap they can be, which explains why they're so pervasive in our society.

But this also shows how important it is for us to ditch our throwaway culture and reuse things as much as possible. Sure, sometimes the reusable product is just as hard to eventually dispose of as the styrofoam/paper/plastic option. But what we’re saying is that the ultimate goal is to go for the reusable product, be proud of keeping items in use for as long as possible, and make sure you really get your money’s worth out of them before you have to replace them. Maximum uses = minimum waste!


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