By Louis Postel
400 billion world-wide.
300 billion in the US alone. 300 billion per year. What would one do without disposable coffee cups? Trouble is: they’re not that disposable. If you really want to be righteous the plastic lid has to go into the plastic bin for recycling while the paper part needs to be separated into the paper bin. It’s a lot of work, a major time factor in the millisecond coffee breaks allotted in offices of the new millennium.
All that traipsing back and forth to various recycling bins is enough to make the world’s hurried billions to want to flip their caffeinated lids — or, worst case: roast like a bean in Litter Bug Hell for a billion and one eternities.
Two years ago, architect Peter Herman recalls how he began each day toting a ceramic mug from his former home in the Bay Area to a nearby Peet’s coffee shop. “Bringing in our mugs is what we all did to be green,” he said. He vowed at the time that were he ever forced to break down and use a disposable cup at least he would crush it up, thereby reducing the amount of landfill required to accommodate one the 400 hundred billions trashed. If we had a window on him prior to his moment of discovery, we would have seen him playing with the cup, slowly, meditatively crushing it before going to work designing research labs and medical schools.
The AHA moment finally came to him at a Peet’s in Boston where he had just moved: what if he could fold the cup in such a way as to make it spill-proof, but also with a spout? Wouldn’t this completely do away with the need for a plastic lid? How many tons of trash would a lidless cup eliminate from our shores? He kept folding, this way and that. Not only would such a cup save mountains of plastic, a paper spout would allow him to drink the last ¼ cup rather than pressing his proboscis onto a flat lid!
Many folds later, Herman had still not worked out the complex perforations in the folding process.
An architect, as opposed to an industrial designer, cup manufacturing was a little out of his line. Even culturally, the project seemed like a long shot. Wouldn’t this be something that the Japanese could work out? Their packaging is so far ahead, their ingenious origami paper folding so much a part of their DNA.
“But I just kept at it,” says Peter, who left off folding in real life and started folding virtually with the advanced 3-D modeling software in his office. Thousands of permutations later he had it: The Compleat Cup (many patents pending). A paper cup with a spout that actually tightens as you hold it can be used for any liquid, not just coffee: motor oil, hot sake, a blueberry mojito.
Next step: finding a manufacturer able and willing to fold millions, possibly billions of these containers. First adopters of the cups — potential retailers such as Peet’s, Starbucks, and Burger King need to be guaranteed they’re not going to run short.” As the cup’s unique silhouette becomes a key element in the adopters’ very green, very innovative brand image, those retailers can’t simply ask customers to bring in their mugs from home until they get another shipment of Herman’s thingamajigs.