In 2015, two New York-based designers conceived of a sustainable alternative to the ubiquitous city coffee cup. Tom Chan, then a sophomore at Cooper Union, developed Unocup—a spill-resistant, foldable cup made of paper—at his school’s Invention Factory summer program. During the six-week program, where students are challenged to design products that address a common need, Chan created some 800 prototypes for Unocup alongside his collaborator and cofounder, architect Kaanur Papo.
Now a full-fledged company, Unocup aims to cut down the amount of plastic waste that enters the ocean (8 million tons annually) by replacing conventional cup and lid designs with a single, origami-like cup that folds to create a lid. New York City’s caffeinated community alone uses roughly 1.1 million pounds of single-use plastic food ware (which includes hot drink lids) every year, whereas the entire world creates 300 million tons of single-use plastic waste annually. Since these omnipresent lids are responsible for 5% of those 8.25 million tons entering the ocean, according to Chan and Papo, their solution is long overdue.
This on-the-go coffee cup is primarily designed to reduce waste—but it’s also ergonomic. The entire cup folds into a peak, which becomes an integrated lid. The measured peaks and valleys of the folds make it impossible for the lid–which is part of the technically lid-free paper cup base–to unfold and pop off on its own. Each of the cup’s three sides can be folded over, either inward or outward (depending on your sipping preferences), and there’s a tab that tucks into a slot that creates the sliver of an opening for coffee to pass through. Think McDonalds french fry container, but covered.
Chan and Papo have partnered with artist Alexis Kandra to develop a unique visual brand identity for Unocups. Kandra is known for her nature-focused designs, featuring animals in surreal environments (much like our rapidly warming one). As a marketing strategy, partnering with Kandra is a good call: Unocups will be instantly recognizable—while also invoking feelings of eco-awareness.
In an effort to manufacture and distribute the recyclable coffee cups to cafes and restaurants, the designers have launched a Kickstarter campaign. They hope to raise $14,500 to help bring their environmentally friendly cups to market, which includes production costs for the first batch, along with compensating Kandra for her work. Given the fact that many coffee shops—which operate on quick to-go orders and high volumes of daily visitors—have already rolled out paper straws, it’s feasible that a lid-less cup takeover could follow.
In addition to cutting out plastics, Unocups’ creators advertise their design as user-friendly (in terms of folding, they’re akin to a Chinese food takeout box) and more comfortable to drink from than the occasionally sharp plastic on traditional lids. They may be easily mass-produced and less wasteful than plastic lids, but could Unocups really usurp the familiar white top of a seasonal pumpkin spice latte with a beautifully decorated, smooth paper enclosure instead? Time will tell.