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01-04-2014 | PACKAGING SYSTEMS INCLUDING RECYCLING | Issue 4/2014

The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 4/2014

Reusable vs. disposable cups revisited: guidance in life cycle comparisons addressing scenario, model, and parameter uncertainties for the US consumer

Journal:
The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment > Issue 4/2014
Authors:
Laura Woods, Bhavik R. Bakshi
Important notes
Responsible editor: Hans-Jürgen Garvens

Electronic Supplementary Material

The online version of this article (doi:10.​1007/​s11367-013-0697-7) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

Abstract

Purpose

Despite interest in an environmentally conscious decision between disposable and reusable cups, a comprehensive and current study for US consumers is not yet available. Guidance in favor of single-use cups rely on outdated or non-ISO-compliant results with limited uncertainty information. Such claims are insufficiently generalizable. This article delivers an updated comparative life cycle impact assessment of reusable ceramic cups and single-use expanded polystyrene cups.

Methods

The ReCiPe midpoint model was selected. Scenario uncertainties are addressed by evaluating compliant standard dishwashing appliance models from 2004 to 2013 used in 26 US subregional utility grids. A utility snapshot from 2009 is applied with extension to recent shifts in generation from increased penetration of natural gas and renewable energy. Parameter uncertainty is quantified through statistical methods.

Results

Where there is statistical difference, results almost entirely favor reusable cups in the USA. For climate change, 16 % of users have higher impact for ceramic cups washed in 2013 by minimally compliant dishwashers. Higher climate change impacts for 32 % of reusable cup users is indicated with 2004 average dishwashers, though using a cup twice between washes shifts the impact in favor of the reusable cup.

Conclusions

Disposable cup scenarios do not account for film sleeves, lids, printing, and less conservative shipping weights and distances and therefore reflect a best case scenario. Impact for reusable cups is expected to decrease further as the electricity mix becomes less CO2-intensive with replacement of coal-fired generators by natural gas, wind, and solar and as less efficient dishwashers are replaced with new units compliant to current laws.

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