Material Talk

The DNA of our pre-industrial cups, be it metal, stone, or wood, would depend on where they were made, and what materials were easily available, and most certainly, these cups would be part of some closed loop system. With industrialization and easy transportation, our concerns have changed. The choice of materials depends largely on cost, convenience, playing into the consumers’ beliefs and the imagery they desire. It frustrates me sometimes, that the globalized world demands a one-size-fits-all solution. Bear with me. It is easy for one to, living in these comfortable times, selectively romanticize the past and be infatuated by the idea of bygone lifestyles led with less of a footprint, less of a scar.

In today’s scenario, I wonder if it is possible to learn from our past, involve local communities and create new systems for disposable cups to suit present day needs. There already is the beautiful arecanut plate, and plenty of success stories to do with the the arecanut dinnerware industry, like this one. And Indian temple prasad, particularly in South India, is almost always served in bowls stitched together from dry leaves. And then there are the banana leaves, that are used as disposable plates in South Indian weddings. While the cup presents a more complex problem, Indian crafts and customs present an undeniable inspiration for biodegradable dispoables..

The complexity of the cup has to do with two things, One, that you press it directly against your lips, And you simply do not want to smell your cup while you’re drinking from it, nor do you want to worry about hygiene. Second, when it’s a hot liquid inside, things get much trickier than when it’s delicious, clumpy Indian food that you can eat with your fingers.

And then there’s all these other combinations of materials that combine the best genes and give you the perfect baby. Paper and Plastic, plastic and aluminium, water proof and cheap, printable and pretty, made for using that one glorious time, but are a pain to recycle because of their multiple layers, and don’t usually get recycled. (Tetra Pak will tell you how green they are and how recyclable their products are, but the global recycling rate of Tetra Paks in 2013 was below 25 percent)

And then, there’s plastic, Ubiquitous, wonderful, plastic which has become such an important part of life. Not all plastic is bad, and not all plastic is better or worse than any other choice one might make. There’s different grades made by different polymers with different melting points – All plastic does not leech into a hot cup of coffee. Polypropylene (PP), High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) and ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) are safe for hot beverages as well as recyclable a few times, and it is unfortunate that all plastic can sometimes get baselessly demonized in favour of a Paper cup that can never be born again. But the word recycling is highly misguiding – plastic is almost always downcycled, into a less useful, lower grade plastic product, and so the life of plastic too, at the end of about four cycles, will turn out to be linear and not really cyclic.

There is plenty that is being done to combine these worlds. Bio-Plastic and biodegradable plastics are already out there- plastic made of plant matter that is biodegradable (note: biodegradable. not compostable. here’s the difference.) – what’s not to love? PLA (Poly Lactic Acid) based plastic is the most common, most easily available biodegradable plastic that has a low enough melting point that it can’t be used for hot beverages. Cups made of PLA or other plastics with low melting points are called cold cups. And then you have PHB (Polyhydroxybutyrate), another biodegradable bioplastic with a high melting point that makes it suitable as a hot cup. However its manufacture and use of which don’t yet seem to be commercially feasible, for running internet search after search yielded mostly frustrating patent pages and student project reports. It seems that PHB can fully replace the PE and wax coatings on our paper cups, and seems wonderfully ideal. Maybe one day. But till then, I think it is unfair to expect some vague idea of technology to solve all the world’s problems.

What we can do now, is alter our thoughts and systems. Would you carry your own cup to the coffee shop that serves you in disposable paper cups? Maybe you wouldn’t, for your mug is bulky, it’s the last thing you’re going to think about when you’re, maybe, rushing out for work. But just for now, forget all that. Forget you’re going out afterwards and you would have problems washing it. Forget that you could forget to carry a cup along, because let’s just say you remember. Would you be willing to take that first step, of placing your mug on the counter, and asking, to please be served in your own mug instead?

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