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Q.  Do you think it is better to use cups and bottled soda or canned drinks at a party? I recently hosted a graduation party and chose to use 2-liter bottles of soda and plastic (recyclable) cups. I set out Sharpies, so people put their name on their cups and reuse them. I know people tend to set a soda can down unfinished, misplace it, and get a new one, but I haven’t tried Sharpies on aluminum!

Ginger
Richland, Wash.

A. Dearest Ginger,

Your question, while timeless, certainly feels timely this week. Countless Americans are no doubt stocking up on BBQ fixin’s, flags, and fireworks from just over the border for this weekend’s 4th of July celebrations, so now is a perfect time to discuss our party drinking habits.

You have posed a classic either-or question, Ginger, but as is my wont with these queries, I’m going to start with an answer of “neither.” Plastic cups and aluminum cans are both disposable items, and usually single-use disposable at that, so it’s best to skip them both entirely in favor of reusable vessels. If your party is on the smaller side, just use your own glassware. Yes, you’ll have some dishes to do after the sparklers have fizzed their last, but I think it’s a worthy price.

Of course, many guest lists exceed what’s available in your kitchen cabinets. For those events, you might stock up on extra cups and glasses at a resale shop. Or you might serve sodas in old jelly or canning jars (here’s a particularly stylish way of doing this). You might even tie a ribbon around them and send ‘em home with your guests as favors (no dishes!).

Or – and this is one of my favorites – make it a BYO cup party. You won’t have to worry about getting or storing cups yourself, guests will be more likely to recognize and keep track of them, and again, you’ve outsourced the dishes. (Though it helps to keep a few extra glasses on hand for the guests who inevitably forget. That, or have them drink out of the coffeepot.)

If none of those options will fly for you, Ginger, you’ll want to consider factors like recyclability, manufacture, and transport when choosing your disposable chalice. The aluminum-versus-plastic question is a murky one. Aluminum cans are easily and frequently recycled, and can be made into new cans; indeed, some of these cylinders may contain up to 68 percent recycled material. (This is good news because producing virgin cans is a damaging and energy-intensive process.) Also in the win column: Aluminum is lightweight and easy to stack, saving on shipping fuel.

In the other corner, we’ve got the plastic two-liter bottle and party cups. Your typical soda bottle is #1 plastic, made of widely recycled PET or PETE, while the classic party cup is a harder-but-still-possible-to-recycle #6 polystyrene. Cups may contain postconsumer recycled plastic, but it’s usually in the 20- to 25-percent range; much plastic ends up being recycled into other items, such as playground equipment and fleece, rather than more bottles or cups. Plastics are also lightweight, though bottles are a bit more cumbersome to pack and ship. And don’t forget, plastic is a petroleum-based product.

One 2009 lifecycle analysis of bottles, cans, and glass declared plastic bottles the winner in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and energy use, but it should be noted this came from a plastics industry group. Other experts have declared the great aluminum-plastic debate a draw. For you, Ginger, cans may win out because your hometown doesn’t accept #6 plastic cups for recycling.

If you do decide to go with disposables, make sure to make recycling easy on your guests by putting out plenty of bins and clearly marking them with what should go inside (“Plastic bottles and red cups only,” for example). But really, I encourage you to go back to the reusable container ideas above. It’s easier than mucking around with all these variables. And what could be more patriotic than stopping American waste before it starts?

Quaffingly,
Umbra