Are Handmade Ceramics More Sustainable Than Your Yeti?

5 min read

Are Handmade Ceramics More Sustainable Than Your Yeti?

Most of us care about the environment around us. Given the chance, we’ll choose the more sustainable option, even when it is more expensive or less convenient. It’s a normal way to feel. If you can relate to that, you probably wonder about the sustainability of many products in your life. For instance, how sustainable is your favorite coffee thermos? Well, that depends on how it’s made. If it’s a handmade ceramic thermos, it bears a very different impact on the environment than a steel option.

Given that though, are handmade ceramics more sustainable than other mugs and thermoses? The short answer is yes. If you want to understand why keep reading.


What Makes Something Sustainable?

If we’re going to compare sustainability, we should have a clear way to do that. We can break sustainability into a few categories. First, how is the material sourced and produced? After that, how long does it last? What happens at the end of the material’s life? Finally, how safe is the material while in use?

We can look at these categories for steel, plastic, glass and clay (ceramics) and see how they compare.


Sourcing Materials

The first category we want to consider is sourcing and production of the materials used to make your mug. Plastic, steel, glass and clay are all sourced quite differently, and their production cycles differ just as widely.

Plastic is one of the most unsustainable materials in terms of sourcing and production. Plastics require petroleum products in order to work. This includes oil drilling, fracking and other common practices, all of which have a powerful impact on the environment. Additionally, the production of plastics produces carbon byproducts and hazardous chemicals. While manufacturers are required to filter and contain the hazardous chemicals, their production can’t be ignored and is part of what makes plastics unsustainable in this regard.

Steel is better than plastic, but it still has problems. Steel comes from raw material mining that has very mixed results in terms of sustainability. Some mining is done responsibly, but globally, strip mining is still common, and a lot of steel in everyday goods comes from strip mining. When it comes to production, steel produces more carbon byproducts than plastics, and steel forging does create hazardous chemicals.

Glass is a step better. The raw materials for glass are naturally occurring, and most of them can be sourced without harmful practices. That said, some of the components of glass do require mining. So, glass mining has a lower impact than steel, but it’s still there and worth noting. Glass production also produces carbon byproducts, but most glasses can be made without producing an abundance of toxic chemicals. Nitrous oxide gases can be part of the process — especially with mass production — but glass producers regularly capture those chemicals and break them into non-harmful products. This is required by federal regulation.

Last on the list is clay. Clay is easy to source sustainably. It naturally occurs in the state already needed to make pottery products. Also, it is abundant around the world. This means that harmful mining practices are not needed. Most of the environmental impact from clay stems from shipping it — but even that impact is smaller than the other materials because clay can almost always be locally sourced. Firing clay does produce carbon compounds, but at a much lower rate than any of these other materials. Likewise, kilns can get hot enough to produce nitrous oxides, but manufacturers are required to capture them and render them inert.

Overall, sourcing clay is much friendlier to the environment than any of these other materials, and in this category, clay is by far the most sustainable.


Longevity and Life Cycle

Producing clay might be the most sustainable practice, but the life cycle also matters. If you have to replace an item frequently, that can hurt its overall sustainability.

For drinking items, plastics are the clear loser. The lifespan of even the best plastics is a far cry shorter than the rest of these materials. Even worse, single-use plastics are common and devastating in terms of sustainability.

Clay and glass are fairly even in this regard. Either can last a lifetime, but both are susceptible to breaking when they are eventually dropped on a hard surface. It happens, but the lifespan of either material is indefinite. That said, ceramics will prove a little tougher than glass on average. Still, it mostly comes down to how the material is produced, and item for item, it’s hard to predict if clay or glass will last longer.

Steel has the longest lifespan by far. It’s just plain hard to break steel. Eventually, it will fail too, but it will almost always outlast clay and glass. In this category, steel is the most sustainable, but glass and ceramics are still acceptable.


End of Life

What happens to the material when it does fail? This is arguably the most important part of sustainability, and we can again break it down by material.

Plastic is once again the loser. It takes a very long time for plastic to naturally degrade. Before that happens, it breaks into microplastics that can get into water supplies and the ocean. Microplastics are toxic, creating a major environmental problem. Plastics can be recycled, but it doesn’t work very well. Even recycling plastics causes them to break down and release some of their inner toxins. The end of life of plastics is a losing situation all around.

Glass is much better. It is non-toxic and largely harmless to the environment. It can also be recycled. Unfortunately, the carbon footprint of recycling glass is about the same as making new glass. So, glass gains very little sustainability from recycling. Glass recycling is mostly done when it is cheaper to recycle it than ship new glass to a region.

Steel is in a similar boat. It takes forever (figuratively speaking) for steel to degrade, but it’s also non-toxic. Where steel outshines glass is recycling. Most of the material of steel can be recycled, and recycling steel is more sustainable than making new steel. This ultimately gives steel the ability to improve its end of life, and it is common around the world to recycle steel and similar metals.

Clay is in an interesting place. It is already in a natural state. It doesn’t really need to degrade. When clay is fired, it does get more firm than its natural state, but it is made of the same natural materials. So, when clay is discarded, it has no environmental impact. It will slowly become brittle and break into small pieces, but it doesn’t really matter.

As for recycling, ceramics technically can be recycled, but it’s largely unnecessary. They are made from naturally occurring clay, and they never really leave the natural state. Overall, the carbon footprint of firing new clay is lower than recycling them, so clay is better off discarded as a harmless substance.


Cleanliness and Hazardous Materials

The last thing we need to consider is microbiology and toxicology. Starting with microbiology, these are the most common food-safe materials for a reason. All of them are fairly anti-microbial. None of them are porous, and that helps them prevent the spread of microbes.

Clay, steel and glass are also easy to clean. This makes them more sustainable as they are that much more resistant to spreading disease and extremely reusable.

In this category, plastics are once again the loser. They can’t be washed as easily or as many times. Also, plastics contain toxic components, and those components eventually become a problem.

Let’s revisit the original question. Are handmade ceramics more sustainable than other drink holders? Overall, the answer is yes. Across its entire lifespan, a handmade ceramic drink holder will have a much smaller impact on the environment than any of the other leading materials.

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