Date: 11 May 2007

Environmental evaluation of single-use and reusable cups

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Abstract

Goal, Scope and Background

The objective of the study was to determine the environmental effects of the resuable cup used during a major event (which took place in Barcelona, Universal Forum of Cultures, 2004), compared with a single-use cup of the same composition (polypropylene) but with different physical characteristics such as mass, shape and capacity.

Methods

To perform the environmental evaluations and the comparison of both types of cups, the SimaPro software developed and marketed by PRé Consultants was used. The environmental evaluation of the reusable cup was compared with that of a single-use cup using the LCA methodology [6]. The functional unit used was: ‘Serving 1000 liters of draught beverages’. The objective of the study was to find the minimum number of cycles the reusable cup has to do so that its environmental impact is smaller than that of the single-use cup.

Results and Conclusions

Taking into account all the hypotheses put forward, the study drew the conclusion that the minimum number of uses of the reusable cup necessary for it to have a smaller environmental impact than the single-use cup is 10. The contribution of each process taking part in the entire life cycle of the cups was also studied in detail. In the case of the single-use cup, the most important contribution to all the impact categories is due to the production of polypropylene and the fabrication of the cup, except for the heavy metals category where it is due to the management of the waste coming from the cup’s use.

In the case of the reusable cup being used 10 times, the contribution to the different impact categories of the waste generated by the cup’s use is negligible compared to the contribution of the fabrication and washing processes. In addition, the washing process is the one which contributes most to the ozone layer depletion, heavy metals and carcinogens categories.

As the number of uses of the reusable cup increases, the contribution to all the environmental impact categories decreases. However, this reduction is not as significant for the ozone layer depletion, heavy metals and carcinogens categories. This is due to the washing process and the fact that the electrical consumption associated with it increases with the number of washings and, consequently, of uses.

Recommendations and Perspectives

From the environmental point of view, the reusable cup must be used at least 10 times to have less impact than the single-use cup. This is mainly due to the higher weight of the reusable cup and, therefore, the greater amount of raw material needed for its fabrication. If the LCA methodology had been introduced during the design of the reusable cup, its weight would have been lower. This modification would have resulted in a reduction of the environmental impact associated with the use of the reusable cup and, consequently, a smaller number of uses would have been necessary to attain the same level of impact as the single-use cup.