The hunger for Stanley cups raises questions about how green stainless steel water bottles really are

The reusable water bottle industry has had many darlings. Exactly how much depends on how far people want to push back in their shelves or junk drawers.

Millennials will remember the ubiquity of wide-mouth Nalgene bottles. Then Hydro Flask, S’well and Yeti stainless steel containers all enjoyed their time as status symbols du jour. Now the juggernaut of the moment is a colossal 40 oz. cup made by Stanley, available in a kaleidoscope of colors to suit people’s style and mood.

Somewhat implicit in the design of these products is that they offer a ‘green’ solution, an environmentally friendly alternative to many wasteful single-use plastic bottles. But now that the revolving door of trends has settled on a new “it” accessory, and the Stanley cup collector market has taken hold, the craze has some wondering if these reusable cups are becoming part of the problem what they are looking for. to deal with.

Reusable cups are certainly not the only product that gives rise to such a debate. And at the heart of these discussions is a central conflict of the environmental movement: how much difference can one individual make compared to the emissions of the fossil fuel industry or policies at the global, national or local level?

“We’re dealing with these massive, unsustainable systems, and one person’s contribution can feel a bit like a drop in the ocean,” says Christie Manning, a cognitive psychologist and associate professor of environmental studies at Macalester College in Minnesota. But she added that even small changes in personal habits and behavior can be empowering in a situation that feels hopeless.

While several brands have seen their popularity skyrocket (and decline) with the trends, America’s recent obsession with the 40 oz. The Stanley Quencher H2.0 Flowstate rocker arm in particular has few parallels.

The cup is a favorite among social media influencers. An entire category of content on TikTok has sprung up around the drink containers, with some collectors showing off entire walls decorated with shelf after shelf of colorful cups. New color releases or exclusive collaborations with other brands have led to the kind of frenzied chaos normally reserved for Black Friday shoppers on the hunt for the cheapest TV deals.

It’s the kind of explosion in popularity that has helped catapult a 110-year-old company from $70 million in annual revenue before 2020 to $750 million in 2023.

At first glance, the Stanley tumbler delivers on its environmental promise. The cups are known for their durability, with the company claiming that its products are ‘built for life’ and ‘never need to be thrown away’. One viral post on TikTok seemed to prove that claim, with a woman showing off her Stanley cup surviving a car fire intact – with ice still in it.

But the cups have also become symbols of overconsumption, products whose green benefits no longer outweigh their ecological footprint.

“You may have a really great product that is more sustainable, but what good is it if it sits in someone’s home and collects dust,” says Nicole Darnall, director and co-founder of the Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative at Arizona State University.

Even if a product is environmentally friendly — whether it’s a stainless steel cup, a reusable shopping bag or a metal straw — every trend that promotes consumerism invariably has a downside, Darnall added.

“There is no doubt that this could lead to unsustainable outcomes,” she said.

Experts agreed that the environmental benefits of dozens or even hundreds of stainless steel cups are difficult to justify, but reusable water bottles are actually a green solution when used properly.

One of the best ways is to have just one or two cups and actually use them. A lot of.

Gregory Norris, adjunct lecturer at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and director of the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, focuses his research on what are known as life cycle assessments. These comprehensive reports assess the full extent of environmental impacts “from cradle to grave” for products and services.

Life cycle assessments take into account, for example, the environmental impact of obtaining raw materials, the energy required and the pollution caused by the production process, the various costs associated with transporting a product to stores or consumers, and the final disposal of the product.

“These models go on forever because every process has a supply chain and all those inputs have their own inputs, and so you just keep going,” says Norris.

He added that he has not done a specific life cycle assessment for Stanley cups or other brands of stainless steel water bottles, but said it would likely take years of consistent use to make up for the impacts over the entire life cycle of the container. up to, for example, 100 plastic water bottles.

“You really have to use that water bottle a few times before it is more environmentally friendly,” says Norris.

The potential impacts are numerous, like spider webs growing like branches on a tree, including greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, land use issues, pollution and impacts on human health.

Overconsumption contributes to climate change and environmental degradation by exacerbating each of these impact categories, 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 ‘motivated cognition’.

“If this beautiful, shiny object is supposed to help the Earth, then we allow ourselves to be lulled into not thinking about the resources it takes to mine and extract the materials, the resources it takes to create it ,” she said. “If we were to think about that more critically, we might say, ‘No, I’ll stick with last year’s model because that’s much greener than buying something new.’”

But it’s not just consumers who need to be responsible for consumption patterns. Companies have an interest in selling more products, even if this conflicts with the environmental values ​​they simultaneously promote.

Norris said there are ways for hydration companies to make improvements, including using recycled stainless steel to manufacture cups, taking advantage of renewable energy and providing ways for consumers to recycle their containers.

Stanley has said it has 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 because the colorful coatings on the cups often require additional layers of processing. Some companies, such as 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 debates about overconsumption, but understanding what drives decision-making can be useful even for those who don’t push the envelope.

“Most people want to do the right thing and be good stewards of natural resources and protect our ecosystems, but often when our desires or social pressures conflict with what could truly be the greener, motivated cognition steps in and allows us not to do that. think about it very critically,” she said.

For those trying to make a real difference, it’s also important that people feel some kind of agency, Norris said, especially in the face of something that seems as intimidating and out of control as global warming.

“We don’t want to get to the point where climate change is completely discouraged,” he said. “I think we have to make our real choices from the details. We can look at our own choices and find ways to help or encourage other people, but I don’t think shaming and blaming will get us any further.”

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