Tuesday, May 27, 2008

not a paper cup, but not perfect either

Strolling through Whole Foods this weekend, I came across an interesting new consumer product:  a ceramic cup, made to look like a paper cup.  

The concept is innocent:  one reusable item that can be purchased to replace countless disposable items, cutting down on waste and minimizing use of natural resources.  In early January when the eco-trendy-blog-world first caught wind of I am not a paper cup, the product was praised for being smart and having a great sense of humor. At the risk of appearing to not have a sense of humor myself, I'll admit that I'm totally irked by I am not a paper cup. Luckily I too have a blog on which to vent about it. 

First and foremost, why must it look like a plain paper cup?  I congratulate the designers at DCI, who created the porcelain base and silicon top to identically match a nondescript white paper cup and a white plastic lid.  But what message does this give?  If I saw someone drinking out of this cup, I would have no idea that they weren't drinking out of a paper cup.  Half the excitement of environmentalism being so trendy right now is how easily you can wear your values on your sleeve, spreading the good word of green far and wide.  But if it looks like you're using a regular paper cup, someone else with a real paper cup will just blend in, and not feel any pressure to switch to reusable alternatives. I hate to advocate guilt tripping as a method of spreading environmental ethics, but you have to admit it's been effective in the past.  

Beyond the lack of guilt it assigns, using something that is eco-friendly but in disguise as something harmful seems to defeat the purpose of leading by example.  Of course there is value in doing something good and letting it go unnoticed.  But while cultural support for environmentalism is still young and fragile I think it is important and necessary to foster that support by proudly showing off every choice to go green, big and small. So why make a reusable cup that is indiscernible from a disposable cup?  I would at least have liked them to plainly say "I am not a paper cup" on the cup itself to get the message across more clearly.  

The second thing that irks me about these cups is that they each cost around $20.  If there's one way to ensure that the green movement remains a fringe trend, it is to make it inaccessible to the masses.  I'm sure it was expensive to make, but twenty bucks for something that looks like a piece of trash is a bit absurd.  It's right up there with those pre-torn jeans.  On top of that, everyone I know who goes to coffee shops regularly and leaves with disposable paper cups in hand is guaranteed to already have plenty of reusable mugs at home that they are choosing not to use.  So what great service is this new trendy cup offering? Are the consumers of this product actually more likely to use it than any other thermos-type mug they may already own, or could purchase just about anywhere for less money? Most other reusable to-go mugs I've seen are larger, more sturdy and durable, and more versatile than this one.  Somehow I'm skeptical that spending $20 on something that looks like a small paper cup is actually going to do the trick of impacting the planet for the better. 

My suspicion is that this trendy gadget will be a popular gift among affluent consumers, and that because the product itself doesn't say "I am not a paper cup" anywhere on it except for on its (plastic) packaging, owners will choose to keep it inside said packaging, resting on a shelf, and will never actually put the object to use.  If that's not a royal waste of materials, I don't know what is. 

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