As everyday object the disposable cup can be said to be synonymous with contemporary lifestyle – mobile, convenient, global. A symbol of modern take-away culture, of immediately accessible and affordable consumerism; a lifestyle choice item that looks beautiful and impressive as part of a large collection of exhibits, as seen on this homepage.
At the same time, whilst almost ‘Warholesque’ when photographed in isolation against a white background and grouped together, sporting a look of purity and utilitarian innocence, this detritus of human civilization appears rather ugly and offensive to the eye when found lying around on tables, in street gutters or discarded thoughtlessly in the countryside. Most alarmingly, the cups’ extremely short useful life – the time it takes for a cup of coffee to go cold – is totally mismatched by their horrendously long after-life in landfill sites.
The disposable cup collection currently counts over 500 mostly disposable coffee cups, but also includes a sizeable proportion of plastic drinking cups. It represents the collector’s contempt for the modern day disposable object and her efforts in raising awareness and seeking possibilities for alternative, more sustainable cup usage.
A cup in isolation hardly gets noticed, especially as the primary aim of handling it is enjoying a drink on the go. Hardly ever do we look at our coffee cup’s design. It is a functional object that once its function has been satisfied, is easily discarded. Grouped together, as seen here, the sheer creative input becomes apparent, as branding designs and ergometric considerations lend impact and individuality to the low-cost utility object.
The cups have recently been exhibited at the Herron School of Art and Design in Indiana. The exhibition, called Drinking from the World: What we take and leave behind, was a collaboration between Dominica Williamson (the Collector) and Matt Groshek. Matt is Public Scholar for Exhibition Planning and Design at the Herron School of Art and Design, School of Liberal Arts - IUPUI, Indianapolis.
The cups’ collector, Dominica Williamson is a freelance artist, designer and activist focused on sustainability. Further information on her practice can be found at ecogeographer.com.
Dominica collected these cups over a period of more than 15 years. She was prompted to do so when, after having refused plastic bags from an early age as a teenager, to her shock she found herself using the disposable cup for the first time after having moved to London in 1995. She lost the majority of the early part of the collection to a house flood in 1998, after exhibiting them at Goldsmiths University of London. Undeterred, she continued to collect. She now lives back where she grew up, a rural environment by the sea in Cornwall. In 2008, for the first time, she found a disposable cup in the village where she grew up. In January of 2010, for the first time, she found a disposable cup in the nearest hamlet to where she grew up. Over the past few years, finds in rural environments have been increasing at an alarming rate and not just in Cornwall. She found three in a semi-rural beach in Morocco in 2009.
Most of the cups seen at disposablecup.org have been found lying around on tables or in street gutters.
Repeats do not get picked up, unless there is a small change in the cup graphic or shape, or it is a cup that is reappearing very consistently in a particular area. The date of pick-up and the location of pick-up have been recorded: manufacturing details noted. There are gaps in time where cups have not been found. Gaps and increases in finds, usually indicate where the collector has been living or travelling.
Cups are being found in more and more places. Whilst it’s difficult to collect figures on disposable cup usage, it is well recorded that currently over 220 billion disposable paper cups alone are used worldwide per year.
Paper cups are made from composite materials, they contain paper but are also laminated to insulate and seal the cups, using polyethylene resin. This means they do not lend themselves for recycling and ensures that every single laminated cup ends up in landfill; here a plastic cup takes hundreds of years to decompose and laminated paper cups start to release harmful methane into the atmosphere as they start to decompose – an eternal legacy of harm to the environment.
For recycling to be an option, according to a UK paper mill at least 10 tons of used paper cups would be needed monthly, in order for a centre to start recycling paper cups. Only recycling businesses such as those in mega cities as Toronto are able to recycle such cups. Recycling can only happen where collection points for cups exist or where rubbish is sorted post-consumer.
One of the ways we can cut down on disposable cup use is by carrying reusable cups and so challenging ourselves on how we can live better in the ‘to-go’ world. Starbucks have claimed that in America and Canada in 2008 they saved nearly 1 million pounds / 454,000 kilograms of paper by promoting the use of reusable mugs in their stores. It’s a start.
The water cooler in our office is another offender. While the ultimate proponent of healthy living, using a new plastic cup every time we quench our thirst, the water cooler cup leaves a trail of destruction for our planet. Bring a glass to your work place, use it to get your water from the cooler and wash it occasionally.
To paraphrase a commercial slogan of a well-known British company: Together we can make a difference.
Let’s see what we can do.
You can add your own cup to the collection if you like, and if you want, you can also recommend the best reusable cup ‘to-carry’.
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