The reusable water bottle industry has many darlings. Just how much depends on how far back people want to sift through their junk shelves or drawers.
Millennials will remember the ubiquity of wide-mouth Nalgene bottles. Then, stainless steel containers made by Hydro Flask, S’well and Yeti enjoyed their time as the status symbols du jour. Now, the juggernaut of the hour is the 40 oz. tumbler made by Stanley that comes in a kaleidoscope of colors to match people’s style and vibes.
Implicit in the design of these products is that they offer a “green” solution, an environmentally friendly alternative to the much more wasteful single-use plastic bottles. Now, however, as the revolving door of trends has settled on a new “it” accessory, and as the Stanley cup collector market has taken hold, the craze is causing some to grapple with whether tumblers are re -usable this becoming part of the problem they were looking for. to face.
Reusable tumblers are hardly the only product to spark such debate. And at the heart of these discussions is a central conflict of the environmental movement: How much difference can one person make compared to emissions from the fossil fuel industry or policies at the global, national or local level?
“We’re dealing with these massive, unsustainable systems, and I feel that one’s contribution feels a little like a drop in the bucket,” said Christie Manning, a cognitive psychologist and associate professor of environmental studies at Macalester College in Minnesota. But she said even small changes in personal habits and behaviors can be empowering in a situation that feels hopeless.
Although different brands have seen their demand skyrocket (and tapering) with the trends, America’s recent obsession with the 40 oz. Stanley Quencher H2.0 Flowstate tumbler, in particular, has a few parallels.
It is the favorite cup among social media influencers. An entire category of content on TikTok has sprung up around drink containers, with some collectors pouring entire walls decorated with shelf after shelf of the colorful cups. New color releases or exclusive collaborations with other brands have sparked the kind of frenzied chaos usually reserved for Black Friday shoppers on the hunt for the cheapest TV deals.
It’s the kind of explosion in popularity that helped catapult the 110-year-old company from $70 million in annual sales by 2020 to $750 million in 2023.
On the face of it, the Stanley tumbler lives up to its environmental promise. The cups are known for their durability, with the company claiming that their products are “built for life” and “never need to be worn.” One viral post on TikTok seemed to prove that claim, with a woman revealing that her Stanley cup survived a car fire – with the ice still in it.
But the cups are also symbols of overconsumption, products whose green benefits no longer outweigh their environmental footprint.
“You might have a great product that’s more sustainable, but it’s fine if it sits in someone’s house and collects dust,” said Nicole Darnall, director and co-founder of the Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative at Arizona State University .
Even if a product is eco-friendly — whether it’s a stainless steel cutlery, a reusable shopping bag or a metal straw — any trend that promotes consumerism has a downside, Darnall added.
“Undoubtedly, it can lead to unsustainable results,” she said.
Experts agreed that it is difficult to justify the environmental benefits of dozens or even hundreds of stainless steel tumblers, but reusable water bottles are, in fact, a green solution, if used correctly.
One of the best ways is to have one or two tumblers, and really use them. A lot.
Gregory Norris, assistant lecturer at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and director of the NetPositive Entrepreneurship Sustainability and Health Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, focuses his research on something called life-cycle assessments. These comprehensive reports assess the full scope of the “cradle to grave” environmental impacts of products and services.
Life cycle assessments take into account, for example, the environmental toll of obtaining raw materials, the energy required and the pollution created by the manufacturing process, the various costs of transporting a product to stores or consumers, and disposal the final product.
“These models go on forever because each process has a supply chain and all of those inputs have their own inputs, so you keep going,” Norris said.
He added that he has not done a specific lifetime assessment for Stanley cups or other brands of stainless steel water bottles, but said it would likely take years of consistent use to offset the impacts over the entire life of the container, in comparison. to 100 plastic water bottles, for example.
“You have to use that water bottle a few times before it’s better for the environment,” Norris said.
There are many potential impacts, pushing spiders out like branches on a tree to include greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, land use issues, pollution and consequences for human health.
Overconsumption contributes to climate change and environmental degradation by exacerbating each of these categories of impacts, Manning said.
Manning’s research examines how people make decisions, along with the biases and imperfections that are part of human nature. She discovered that with green products, people’s thinking can be colored by “stimulated cognition”.
“If this nice, shiny object is meant to help the Earth, then let’s think about the resources involved in mining and extracting the materials, the resources used to create it,” said she “If we thought more critically about that, we could say, ‘No, I’ll stick with last year’s model because that’s much greener than buying something new.'”
But it is not just consumers who should be held accountable for consumption patterns. Companies have a vested interest in selling more products, even if that violates the environmental values they promote at the same time.
Norris said there are ways for hydration companies to make improvements, including using recycled stainless steel to manufacture tumblers, harnessing renewable energy and providing ways for consumers to recycle their containers.
Stanley said it is committed to making at least 50% of the company’s stainless steel products from recycled materials by 2025.
And while stainless steel is recyclable, not all local facilities accept the items as the colorful coatings on the tumblers often require additional layers of processing. Some companies, like Hydro Flask, allow customers to trade in old products, but similar recycling programs have not yet been widely adopted in the industry.
Manning said the Stanley cup craze has sparked important discussions about overconsumption, but even those who don’t go to the extremes of collecting can find it helpful to understand what drives decision-making.
“Most people want to do the right thing and be good stewards of natural resources and want to protect our ecosystems, but often our desires or social pressures conflict with that. which could be greener in fact, cognitive steps encouraged in and allows us not to be. think about it very critically,” she said.
For those who really want to make a difference, it’s also important for people to feel some kind of agency, Norris said, especially with something as scary and out of control as global warming.
“We don’t want to get to the point of complete discouragement on climate change,” he said. “I think we have to sort out our real options from the minutiae. We can look at our own choices and then find ways to help or encourage others, but I don’t think shame and blame get us anywhere.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com