Earlier this month, Starbucks announced plans to ditch plastic straws in all its coffee shops around the world by 2020. It’s a very small start in the larger effort to limit waste associated with single-use plastic. Disability advocates criticized Starbucks’s approach while environmentalists pointed out that using lids to replace straws doesn’t really reduce the use of plastic at all.
But what if your coffee came in an entirely organic kind of cup? That’s the vision of Jun Aizaki, the founder of New York-based design studio Crème Design. He and his team have created a prototype cup that’s made from a gourd grown inside a 3D-printed mold. And while the process to create the gourd cups, which he calls HyO-Cups, is time-intensive–taking a whopping five to six months–Aizaki hopes to one day mass-grow drinking receptacles, maybe even for coffee shops like Starbucks.
About five years ago, Aizaki and his team began thinking about the wasteful habit of going to the coffee shop–and how they might improve it. “What if you could just throw away a cup instead of recycling it?” he says. “What if it just went to the regular garbage, and it went back to Mother Nature?”
That led his team to think about potential materials they could use that would be able to hold liquids–like hard pasta, or some kind of rice paper. But a gourd had a track record: Gourd containers can be found all over the world, including Asia, South America, and Africa. “I knew gourds were traditionally used in many cultures as a container,” Aizaki says. “In Chinese culture, gourds were grown to hold alcohol.”
But there was a problem–because gourds grow naturally, they’re never the same shape or size, which would be vital to producing them at scale, both for shipping them efficiently and having a standardized size for the end user. “If there was a way to control that process and create something that’s more uniform and more predictable, we thought it could potentially become an alternative to the way we make things,” Aizaki says.
To solve this problem, Aizaki looked to the way watermelons are often grown in his native Japan–in square molds to make them easier to pack and ship. So the team created 3D-printed molds in several shapes to experiment with, and Aizaki planted gourds in the backyard of his home in Brooklyn so they would grow into the shape of a cup. After three summers of growing gourds, the team has settled on two main shapes: a stackable cup that has geometric facets and a flask style with a smaller opening.
The finished cups are luminous, unique objects that are 100% organic and biodegradable. But it’s a long, tedious process to grow cups rather than manufacture them. Aizaki says it takes about a month for the plant to fruit, two to three weeks for the fruit to develop, and then once it’s finally grown large enough, it takes another two to three months of sitting in the sun for the gourd to dry enough that it can be used to drink out of. On top of that, gourds only grow during the summer in the New York area, dramatically limiting the team’s ability to prototype quickly. Because they’re so time-intensive to produce, they fall far short of the vision of one day replacing single-use cups in coffee shops and cafes. Still, Aizaki is determined to find a way of making the production process more efficient–and thus more scalable.
Now, the team is hoping to do more experiments to make the drying process faster, perhaps by using an oven or another technique; Aizaki additionally hopes to grow the gourds in a controlled environment (rather than his backyard) so that growth isn’t limited by the weather. The team is also looking for partners to scale the idea. Perhaps Starbucks and McDonald’s, which recently teamed up to create a 100% recyclable, compostable cup, should take a look.