Dear Umbra,

I am putting together a fundraiser for the Environmental Law Association at the George Washington University Law School, whereby I intend to sell coffee mugs. If you saw all the paper cups that get thrown away at my school you would be in tears (at least two trips to Starbucks a day: double cups and a hand cozy … scary). My question is, should I get plastic (I know you hate plastic), metal (almost all metal coffee mugs have some plastic on them), or is there some jazzy enviro travel mug that hasn’t crossed my radar?

Washington, D.C.

Dearest Katie,

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As a matter of fact, an odd travel mug did cross my radar recently. It’s made of 100 percent United States-grown corn plastic, with a little claim for compostability.

Good beyond the last drop.

Photo: iStockphoto

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The addition of that mug gives us four choices of durable fundraising mug: corn plastic, petroleum plastic, stainless steel, and ceramic. We must evaluate both sales appeal to law students and environmental soundness. On the sales front we’re looking for aesthetics, portability, and durability. Does the mug suggest “future Supreme Court clerk”? On the environment front, we look, as always, for a lifecycle analysis to answer the question easily — but when that does not appear, we fumble about with available information and inference.

Sales-wise, we can easily knock out the ceramic mug. Primero, no travel lid; secundo, heavy; tertio, looks like home mug, will be forgotten there; finito. As for the two plastics, I think they are the same from a sales perspective: no one is going to know the corn mug is made of corn unless you tell them, and it looks like petroleum plastic. My aesthetic bias is toward stainless steel, and I think I am not alone. Plastic mugs look cheap and scratch easily. They don’t say Prestigious Law School to me; they say Earth Day Event, or — worse for your purposes — Quik-E Mart.

Which leads us to my foregone eco-conclusion, which is that you should go with stainless steel. I’ll fumble about with materials information in a minute, but I give sales appeal such emphasis because the primary goal here is to reduce disposable cup use by selling gobs of long-lived travel mugs. If the mugs don’t sell, you don’t meet this goal at the outset. (Your next step, of course, is to get fair-trade, organic coffee into those mugs, but one thing at a time.)

The corny mug.


Working backward from the reducing-disposables goal, I don’t think plastics are as long-lived as stainless. They become scratched and almost pilly, start to smell odd, and finally one day, justly dubious of their cleanliness and certain of their scruffiness, we dump them. Stainless, on the other hand, will hold the sleek, successful lawyer look over time.

Stainless steel is a fairly decent, durable material. Large volumes of stainless steel are reclaimed and reprocessed; globally, stainless steel contains an average of 60 percent recycled content. Virgin stainless, which may well be in travel mugs, is very high in “embodied energy,” meaning its manufacture uses many resources and is likely worse than the manufacture of plastics (corn or petro). However, duration of end-use can make up for the embodied energy costs, i.e., a stainless cup used daily for five years probably beats a plastic cup used for six months. I haven’t seen the direct smackdown numbers, but for an explication of this concept you can read about paper vs. plastic vs. ceramic. I think we all would use a stainless-steel mug longer than a plastic one. Not to mention far longer than a paper cup, leading us back to the great idea you have in the first place.

I wouldn’t knock Starbucks cups, by the way. The company has actually worked quite hard to reduce virgin paper use by developing the beverage sleeve, encouraging cup reuse, and establishing supply chains of food-grade, recycled-paper pulp to achieve 10 percent recycled content in their cups. Huzzah to them.


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