The reusable water bottle industry has had many darlings. Exactly how many depends on how far back people want to sift in their shelves or junk drawers.
Millennials will remember the ubiquity of wide-mouthed Nalgene bottles. Then, stainless steel containers made by Hydro Flask, S’well and Yeti all enjoyed their time as the status symbols du jour. Now, the juggernaut of the moment is a hulking 40 oz. tumbler made by Stanley that comes in a kaleidoscope of colors to match people’s style and vibes.
Somewhat implicit in the design of these products is that they offer a “green” solution, an environmentally friendly alternative to far-more-wasteful single-use plastic bottles. Now though, as the revolving door of trends has settled on a new “it” accessory, and as a Stanley cup collectors market has taken hold, the craze is causing some to confront whether these reusable tumblers are becoming part of the very problem they sought to address.
Reusable tumblers are hardly the only product that provokes such debate. And at the heart of these discussions is a central conflict of the environmental movement: How much of a difference can one individual make compared to emissions from the fossil fuel industry or policies at the global, national or local level?
“We are dealing with these huge, unsustainable systems, and one person’s contribution can feel a little bit 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 added that even small changes to personal habits and behaviors can be empowering in a situation that feels hopeless.
While various brands have seen their popularity skyrocket (and taper off) with the trends, America’s recent obsession with the 40 oz. Stanley Quencher H2.0 Flowstate tumbler, in particular, has few parallels.
The cup is a favorite among social media influencers. An entire category of content on TikTok has emerged around the beverage containers, with some collectors flaunting entire walls adorned with shelf after shelf of the colorful cups. New releases of colors or exclusive collaborations with other brands have incited 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 helped catapult a 110-year-old company from $70 million in annual sales before 2020 to $750 million in 2023.
On its face, the Stanley tumbler does make good on its environmental promise. The cups are known for their durability, with the company touting 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 that her Stanley cup survived 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 environmental footprint.
“You might have a really great product that is more sustainable, but what good is it if it sits in a person’s home 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 be a stainless steel tumbler, a reusable shopping bag or a metal straw — any trend that promotes consumerism invariably has a downside, Darnall added.
“Without question, it can lead to unsustainable outcomes,” she said.
Experts agreed that the environmental benefits of dozens or even hundreds of stainless steel tumblers are difficult to justify, but reusable water bottles are, in fact, a green solution if they are used properly.
One of the best ways is to have just one or two tumblers, and actually use them. A lot.
Gregory Norris, an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard T.H. 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 scope of environmental impacts “from the cradle to the grave” for products and services.
Life cycle assessments take into account, for instance, the environmental toll of obtaining raw materials, the energy required and pollution created by the manufacturing process, the various costs involved with transporting a product to stores or consumers, and the product’s eventual disposal.
“These models sort of go on forever because every process has a supply chain and all of those inputs have their own inputs, and so you just keep going,” Norris said.
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 consistent use for years in order to make up for the impacts across the container’s entire life cycle, compared to 100 plastic water bottles, for instance.
“You really have to use that water bottle quite a few times before it’s environmentally better,” Norris said.
The potential impacts are numerous, spiderwebbing out like branches on a tree to include greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, land use issues, pollution and consequences for 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 found that with green products, people’s thinking can be colored by “motivated cognition.”
“If this pretty, shiny object is supposed to help the Earth, then we let ourselves be lulled into not thinking about the resources that go into mining and extracting the materials, the resources that go into creating it,” she said. “If we thought more critically about that, we might say, ‘No, I’m going to stick with last year’s model because that’s far more green than buying something new.’”
But it’s not only consumers who should be accountable for patterns of consumption. Companies have a vested interest in selling more products, even if that runs counter to 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, taking advantage of renewable energy and providing ways for consumers to recycle their containers.
Stanley has 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 because 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 debates about overconsumption, but understanding what drives decision-making can be helpful even for those who don’t go to collecting extremes.
“Most people want to do the right thing and be good stewards of natural resources and want to protect our ecosystems, but often when our desires or social pressures conflict with what might really be the greener thing, motivated cognition steps in and allows us to not think very critically about it,” she said.
For those who are genuinely trying to make a difference, it’s also important for people to feel some sort of agency, Norris said, particularly with something that seems as daunting and out-of-one’s-control as global warming.
“We don’t want to reach the point of complete discouragement on climate change,” he said. “I think we have to sort out our real choices from the minutiae. We can look at our own choices and then find ways to help or encourage other people, but I don’t think shaming and blaming gets us anywhere.”
Denise Chow is a reporter for NBC News Science focused on general science and climate change.