Paper cups are not recyclable: Goldsmiths MA student launches awareness campaign

Have you ever wondered what happens to paper cups in which we take our morning coffees on the go? Did you know that the cups are coated with a layer of plastic that makes them non-recyclable?

MA Design and Environment student Valentina Benito is running a campaign to raise awareness about the issue, and point consumers towards solutions for reducing its environmental impact. You can find out more about the campaign from its website, and download materials to participate. Valentina tells us more about herself and her initiative:

Q: How would you describe your design practice in a nutshell? What are your interests as a designer?

A: I’m a Chilean designer, my title is in integral design, which a little bit of everything, but oriented towards design management and project development. I worked for 5 years as a product developer for a retail company, designing and managing the production of home textile products, but I realised that I needed a big change in my life, I needed to find a way of working on something meaningful, something that I could enjoy and also make me feel like I’m contributing to a better world. I’ve always felt attracted to design projects related to culture, arts and crafts, community development and sustainability. That’s why, when I decided to quit my job and start this new life project, I got interested in London and in Goldsmiths.

Q: How did you become interested in the topic of recyclable paper cups?

A: As part of the MA research process, I researched paper cups and how unsustainable they are, especially because of the misunderstanding that they generate in the users. Most people assume that, as they are made of cardboard, they can be recycled, but the truth is really far from that. The topic was so massive, that I continue developing it in other two modules. While trying to find the solution to an impossible problem, I came to the conclusion that the first step is communication, and that’s when I decided to create this campaign.

Q: What kind of research did you do to develop the project?

A: The research can be divided in two main stages: first, the life cycle and system behind disposable cups, including production, use, consumption and disposal; and second, understanding the use of disposable or reusable cups, considering contexts of use, where and why using each container and mapping types of users. Both stages included bibliographic and media review, which was combined with an ethnographic research. The latter was based on questionnaires, interviews, case studies, situational observation and a deep analysis of all these data together.

Q: What are you hoping to achieve through your campaign?

A: The main objective is to create awareness of the fact that paper cups are not recyclable and they cannot be treated as paper. This is a pretty dramatic change of perspective and, of course, it can generate the feeling of being powerless about it, which is why the campaign also tries to connect this to what people can actually do about it:

  1. a) use reusable tumblers;
  2. b) avoid disposable cups when staying inside the coffee shops; and lastly, in case of using paper cups,
  3. c) recycle the cardboard sleeves and throw the rest in the general waste (unless there is a specialized bin for paper cups).

There is also a secondary expectation: that the campaign can generate a conversation about these kinds of daily objects and how big is the impact of our consumption choices in our environment. More than telling people “how nasty they are”, it is about people reflecting about choices and the little things that can have such a huge contribution, especially on the products and services that we consume every day.

Q: What kind of feedback did you receive while working on the project?

A: More than 90% of the people I interviewed assumed that paper cups should be thrown into recycling, and for most of them paper cups weren’t a problem because of that. These objects have a powerful “eco-friendly” image, which has made people believe they were actually good for environment. In the end, the problem has been made invisible, and when something is not publicly visible, it doesn’t exist.

Follow papercupsinfo on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, and share its call to awareness with the hashtag #PaperCupsAreNotRecyclable.