The Stanley cup craze in the Lehigh Valley: How sustainable is this reusable cup trend, really?
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Kathleen Harrison was the 12th person in line last month at a Target store in Northampton County, patiently waiting for her turn to buy a limited-edition pink Stanley cup inside the store’s Starbucks.
“I arrived at 6:30 a.m.,” Harrison, of Easton, said. “By the time the store opened, the line obviously grew.
"But what that Target did, they had a piece of paper typed out, and they gave it to everybody in line that was there, which would assure that they would get a cup.
“I believe they had 39 cups. So once they handed out 39, it was just done. It was very organized — no issues.”
Stanley cups, and the lengths consumers will go to get their hands on them, have caused a stir on social media in the Lehigh Valley and beyond.
The popular 40-ounce drinking cups, available in an array of stylish colors and lauded for their ability to keep drinks cold for hours, have only recently skyrocketed in popularity.
While collectors argue that the cups have made sustainability trendy, environmental advocates said fads like these can encourage overconsumption — the opposite of sustainability.
“From an environmental perspective, it's always, always, always better to have a reusable item than something that is single use, especially when you're comparing it to something like a plastic water bottle or something like that … But, on the other hand, people are buying a lot of them."Faran Savitz, a zero waste advocate with PennEnvironment
Faran Savitz, a zero-waste advocate with PennEnvironment, described the Stanley trend as a “mixed bag.”
“From an environmental perspective, it's always, always, always better to have a reusable item than something that is single use, especially when you're comparing it to something like a plastic water bottle or something like that," Savitz said,
"But, on the other hand, people are buying a lot of them.
“If you're not reusing your cup, or tumbler, or bottle over and over again, if you're just buying the new one, using it once or twice and then throwing it away or letting it collect dust, it's not really doing its job. It's not being reused, and that creates a lot of waste, too.
"So we want to be careful that when we get something reusable, we're actually reusing it.”
Stanley hits it big
Reusable cups and tumblers have been popular for several years as officials and environmental advocates encouraged residents to cut down their waste.
But Seattle-based Stanley is different, fans say.
While the company has been around for more than 100 years, popular with blue-collar workers for their sturdy stainless steel thermoses, it’s in the past half-decade that their tumblers have exploded in popularity, catalyzed by social media influencers and becoming one of the most popular holiday gifts this most recent season.
Retailing at $45, the cups have pushed Stanley’s annual sales from $75 million a year to $750 million a year in 2023, according to Forbes.
In November, a TikTok post went viral after a fire destroyed a woman’s car. Her Stanley tumbler, however, was unscathed, sitting in the car’s cup holder with the ice still intact.
A Stanley subculture
A whole subculture of Stanley fans exists, not unlike any other collectible, Harrison, the Target shopper, said.
While talking to others waiting in line for the latest Stanley release, she created the Stanley Tumbler Obsessed Lehigh Valley Group on Facebook — a place where local fans of the tumbler can share their collections, resell and network, finding “cup buddies.”
There are just shy of 60 members so far.
“It's nice, because you can have people help you get certain cups that you might be looking for. Everybody kind of alerts one another, like, ‘Hey, they have it at the store.’ People pick things up for you.”Kathleen Harrison, Target shopper
“It's nice, because you can have people help you get certain cups that you might be looking for,” Harrison said. “Everybody kind of alerts one another, like, ‘Hey, they have it at the store.’ People pick things up for you.”
There’s also a bevy of ways to “dress your cup up,” she said, using Grit and Grace, a Texas-based boutique, as an example.
“They make bows, but they also make boots and straw toppers and they just have the cutest things,” she said. “Their designs and stuff are just amazing.
"So that's like my go-to people for my accessories. They even had the little charms you can put on. I do like to dress up my cup.”
And because of limited releases in only certain locations, the Stanley reseller market can be intense.
“There are colors that are only exclusive to certain countries,” she said. “They did a Tiffany blue drop in the Philippines — that cup goes for like $400.”
With all their popularity, the Stanley also had had less-than-favorable reviews, especially recently, as videos have cropped on social media claiming the cups contain lead.
Company leaders responded, explaining while lead is used in the manufacturing process, it doesn’t come in contact with people.
“At Stanley, one of the key features of our products is our vacuum insulation technology, which provides consumers with drinkware that keeps beverages at the ideal temperature,” the company posted on its website.
“Our manufacturing process currently employs the use of an industry standard pellet to seal the vacuum insulation at the base of our products; the sealing material includes some lead.
“Once sealed, this area is covered with a durable stainless steel layer, making it inaccessible to consumers. Rest assured that no lead is present on the surface of any Stanley product that comes into contact with the consumer nor the contents of the product.”
If the base cap does come off, exposing the seal, it is eligible for the company’s lifetime warranty, officials added.
Asked about lead concerns, Harrison said it was a non-issue.
“Lots of other cups use that process that Stanley uses, but it's not at all in the cup or even able to consume — you'd have to really damage the cup to even be exposed to it,” she said.
“So I don't concern myself with it.”
‘There's a cost’
When reusable items are kept and maintained instead of single-use products, it’s overall better for the environment, Savitz said.
But the tipping point in the Stanley fad might be in the rearview mirror, he said.
“Trends come and trends move on, and every time it leaves a lot of excess of these containers and bottles — ones that either didn't get sold or that people just collect and then move on from,” Savitz said.
“And that's a problem in a lot of different areas. We see it with beverage containers. We see it with fashion, people buying clothing to wear once or twice and then throwing it away.”
All that waste needs to go somewhere, he said.
"There's a cost to get rid of them, no matter how you're getting rid of it, and that can be damaging to our environment, to our ecosystems, to our health, too.”Faran Savitz, a zero-waste advocate with PennEnvironment
“Some of it gets recycled. Some of it sits in a closet somewhere for years collecting dust,” he said. “But, no matter where it's going, there's a cost to create these things.
"There's a cost to get rid of them, no matter how you're getting rid of it, and that can be damaging to our environment, to our ecosystems, to our health, too.”
And, even though Stanley offers replacement parts, when the end of its useful life comes, recycling might be tricky.
"Recycling differs from township to township, borough to borough, city to city — so what can get recycled somewhere might not get recycled in the next place,” Savitz said.
“And so, for something like stainless steel or a container like that, maybe if you put it in your curbside recycling or your single stream that's not going to get recycled.
“You can definitely check your local requirements to see what can and can't be accepted.”
Scrap metal recyclers might be an option, too, he said, and are located across Pennsylvania and the Valley.
“But ideally, you're holding on to this for years,” he said. “And using it hundreds, thousands of times, hopefully, to make its environmental impact impactful.”