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Q. Dear Umbra,

We are looking for an eco-friendly gift for our employees. Leaning toward some type of reusable travel mug, we need help deciding on the best option. If we had our way, this product would be made locally or at least in the USA; have the lowest carbon footprint of the available materials (stainless steel, plastic, glass, aluminum, ceramic, etc.); be recyclable; and be affordable. We would like to stay away from plastic if we can, but if the science points us in that direction, we would consider it. I’m having problems locating a stainless steel version of what we are looking for made in the U.S.A.

Laura B.
Baltimore, Md.

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A. Dearest Laura,

How lovely to hear from a company that is putting so much thought into rewarding its employees, and doing it in an eco-friendly way. What if I told you I had identified the perfect gift, one with zero manufacturing impacts and universal appeal?

I’m talking, of course, about the gift of time. Could you give your employees a day off, or even a half-day, or the option to save commuting time by working from home once in a while? If that’s not feasible, what if you put your mug money into gift certificates for experiences, like a massage or a movie or a nice dinner out? You could build a little menu of options — employee recognition a la carte.

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“They” say the best things in life are not things, and I think that is especially true in this case. Your employees, while no doubt touched by the sentiment behind the mug (and they would be even more touched if they knew how hard you were working to sustainably source these gifts), might well want something else. Mightn’t they?

I hope you understand that my comments are made in the spirit of creativity, not crankery. What you really want is mug information, and mug information I shall provide.

First, the materials. Fret not, the science (and I) will never point you in the direction of plastic. Plastic is carbon-intensive to produce and poses various threats to our health. An all-plastic mug would not be a gift so much as a slap in the face. However, it will be difficult for you to avoid plastic entirely when you consider linings and lids. (I wouldn’t bother with corn plastic, either, even though there do seem to be some corn mugs made in the U.S. of A.; you’ll just get lost in the corporate maze of genetically modified maize.)

Stainless steel is lovely and very recyclable, but apparently produced almost entirely in China and India, so we must nix it on your buy-local grounds. Ceramic has its benefits [PDF], but you must watch out for glazes containing lead, and it is not widely recyclable. Glass is elegant and basically infinitely recyclable, and here I have a semi-buy-local idea for you: It just so happens that Pure, a company with origins in Baltimore, sells a glass bottle encased in a plastic coating for durability. No, we don’t like plastic, but we like it slightly better when it’s not directly touching our food, and Pure says its bottle is recyclable, coating and all.

You might also look into aluminum: lightweight, eminently recyclable, and I found a proudly domestic manufacturer, Liberty Bottleworks. They’re based over here in Yakima, Wash., they use recycled materials, and their spirited commitment to sustainability positively leaps off their website. These bottles are BPA-free but lined with a “food-grade coating.” Just do yourself a favor and don’t read any of the recent news reports about how some aluminum bottles from other companies, even those marked BPA-free, turn out to leach BPA from their interior lining. Ugh.

No doubt about it, you are in a bit of a pickle, and I’m not sure how much I’ve helped. But I will tell you this: When I’m wrestling with indecision, I like to step back and see if there’s an alternative I’m overlooking. Which brings us back to my first idea — the non-tangible but precious gift of time. It’s far more refreshing than sipping water from an eco-mug, and it helps meet the goal we should all be prioritizing: “more fun, less stuff.”