Put aside your morning cup of coffee. How’s this for a wake up call? In North America we throw away about 58 BILLION paper cups every single year. And most of them don’t even get recycled. Why?
“It’s partly because the systems are just not in place to recycle these coffee cups,” says Toby Daniels, a 33-year-old social entrepreneur, and founder of the betacup, a website focused on reducing the use and misuse of these ubiquitous, yet ever so disposable objects. And, as Daniels points out, since the smooth plastic inner lining that makes the cups waterproof is all but impossible to separate from the paper, “the majority of them just end up in landfills and obviously don’t biodegrade over time.”
So Daniels came up with the betacup challenge, an online contest that launches today, and he’s intent upon engaging creative thinkers to find solutions to the disposable cup waste conundrum. At the root of the problem (and a problem which Daniels freely admits to being a part of) is this: “The paper cup is just too good, it’s just too convenient. It’s too good at its job. And it’s very, very difficult to break consumer habits when there’s no obvious reason to do so.” In fact, as he discovered, fewer than 2 percent of people in North America who drink coffee on the go actually tote their own travel mugs. He knew why from personal experience, but the question was how to resolve the problem.
About a year ago, Daniels, a British expat living in New York, was talking to his friend Graham Hill, founder of Treehugger.com, about his frustration over the number of paper cups he regularly tosses. Hill is also the creator of a line of porcelain coffee cups that mimic those iconic blue and white paper cups familiar to coffee drinkers everywhere, and emblazoned with the line We are Happy to Serve You.
“Every time we met for coffee he would bring me one of these porcelain cups and try to get me to reuse, versus use a paper cup,” says Daniels. “And the problem was that I have like four or five of these cups at home, and I never brought them out with me. They’re difficult to carry and I couldn’t store them anywhere.”
That’s when the light bulb went on. “I felt that this was a significant enough of a design challenge and design problem for us to spend some time looking more closely at it.”
So Daniels pitched his idea to Shaun Abrahamson at Colaboratorie Mutopo, a New York-based company that specializes in social product design and development. Mutopo jumped right on board.
“Shaun’s immediate response to me was how about rather than try to come up with a design solution ourselves, we just crowdsource a potential solution,” says Daniels.
And so last spring the betacup challenge was born. The challenge runs through June 15, and here’s how it works:
Who can enter?
Anyone. “Regardless of whether you’re an industrial designer, a product designer, even a user-experience designer, or an anthropologist who studies insects, it doesn’t matter,” says Daniels. “Anyone can submit an idea.”
How do you enter?
Simply go to the betacup website and follow the link to register. “We’re not just looking for cup ideas, because the cup is really only part of the solution,” says Daniels. “It could very well be this ground breaking innovative reusable cup that no one’s ever thought of. But it might also be an idea to do with recycling and the system-wide problem of why reusable cups are not being adopted. And it could be a consumer behavior-related solution, so it could be something that really taps into how to motivate consumers to switch behaviors. We’re just looking for ideas at this stage, so someone can take their idea as far as say, a 3-D rendered design or a written brief or presentation.”
What happens after you submit your idea?
In the spirit of open collaboration, the community and an expert panel of judges can critique your entry, allowing you to update your idea throughout the challenge. At the end of the challenge, the panel of judges will select a winner, and the community of collaborators will vote on 5 runners up.
What’s the prize?
Starbucks – which is aiming to serve 100 percent of its drinks in reusable or recyclable cups by 2015 – heard about the betacup challenge and approached Daniels about collaborating somehow. “We believe in harnessing the creativity of environmentally conscious individuals to identify new alternatives,” says Jim Hanna, Starbucks director of Environmental Impact. The company has joined the betacup as a partner is providing $20,000 in prize money, $10,000 of which goes to the winner, and $2,000 each to the 5 runner ups. “The prize money, as we say in the U.K. can be ‘trousered’,” says Daniels. “It can literally just go in their pockets.”
Why the collaborative approach?
“The question I’m always interested in is: can we crowdsource high quality ideas through this process that could eventually lead to viable solutions that could be implemented in the future?” says Daniels. “We’re excited because when you open up the process rather than trying to figure this out behind closed doors, the amount of awareness you create around the problem is that much greater.”
What happens to the winning ideas?
“What we’re looking for at the end of this initial phase of the betacup is strong ideas that can be taken forward and actually be implemented in some form or another,” Daniels says, adding that whoever submits an idea retains ownership of his or her idea. “There is for us, and for the individual people that are submitting the ideas a real opportunity for a commercial solution that can ultimately be used to reduce the amount of paper cup consumption,” he concludes. “The ultimate goal is to reduce paper cup consumption, and we’re not going to be happy and we’re not going to stop until we’ve seen an impact.”
photo credit: thanks to Toby for the great pic!
Suzi Schiffer Parrasch