The Immortal Paper Cup

Disposable cups were first used in Hospitals, or so wiki tells me, for reasons of Hygiene, before taking the rest of the world by storm.They are light in weight, extremely inexpensive, and work perfectly for a grab and go lifestyle.

The reason the paper cup is a problem is not particularly because we’re losing trees for paper. Paper does not come from random trees, but from trees grown for the very purpose of making paper- paper can in that sense, encourage afforestation. The Paper industry has other issues of its own, being one of the largest consumers of water and energy and a major polluter, but before I get side tracked worrying about all the world’s problems, here’s why the Paper cup isn’t a good thing.

A paper cup is lined with plastic on the inside to make it waterproof, making it utterly useless after it has been used all of once. And no, rag pickers will not pick them up. The plastic lining cannot be separated from Paper, and so you have a product that is now neither biodegradable nor recyclable, sitting with a defiant permanence in our landfills, letting out methane.

One might argue that a reusable cup will consume water and thus a disposable cup may be wiser in that sense, but here is an article that weighs the two options in terms of both, water and energy, and gives you the math on why we’re better off using reusable cups. In any case, it isn’t impossible to imagine a future where you can wash without water, look!

The problem is different in different countries. In the first world- starbucks-dishwasher economies, companies particularly such as Starbucks, are interested in being perceived as being environmentally responsible, perennially being in the eyes of the public. And in a world where people feel good about recycling, about throwing things into the right bins, this, is what people want to hear, which can be both a great thing and a terrible thing. So the Paper cup remains, almost unavoidable in the linear lifestyles of these times, where  processes no longer go into organic closed loops.

In India, the linear chain remains many links shorter; things don’t always go into bins. In a country like ours plagued with problems, tackling the paper cup is hardly a priority, the general attitude towards garbage follows the out-of-site-out-of-mind route. However, if it makes economic sense to recycle something, anything,  (forget aspects of health and the environment) it’s safe to assume that it’s already happening, for such is the brilliance of our informal sector.  Tomorrow, though, if one were to use a coated paper cup that is biodegradable or recyclable, it is, in reality, probably effectively neither of those things in India because of the gap between the formal and informal sectors.

Things have been tried. Collapsible cups, travel mugs, maybe we don’t see enough of them in India, but there’s plenty of ideas out there in the world to battle the plastic lined paper cup. When that is the case, why is Starbucks still struggling?

As Victor Hugo said,  No army can stop an idea whose time has come.

Clearly, we need more ideas.


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