Business Brains

Packaging company seeks to conserve coffee with new disposable cup design

Posting in Design

A San Francisco Bay area inventor has come up with a patented design intended to eliminate the need to pour off coffee to make room for milk or cream.

Author's note: This post was updated on Friday, June 8, with information about a bidirectional cup design being worked on by the R4 inventor.

I am strictly a milk-in-my-coffee sort of person, but depending on the barista I get at my local coffee shop, I almost always have to pour out some coffee when I ask for "room for milk" in my cup. Sound familiar?

Since I am not the only customer who habitually does this, I've been vaguely wondering about the ensuing coffee and water waste. So, I was intrigued by the following: a sustainable packaging company in Richmond, Calif., is working with a product design and development company from San Francisco, Sector Labs, that has come up with a disposable cup that has marker levels on the outside to make pouring a little more scientific. The cup is called the R4 System, which is basically an acronym for "Room For." (The latter will be the brand name.)

Excellent Packaging & Supply is testing the concept in the San Francisco Bay area in a very limited pilot program. (Although a test with a national chain could be announced soon.) The original thought behind the product was to save water, but the test location has also keyed in on the fact that the new cups are helping cut down the mess that pouring hot coffee makes in its garbage cans.

Said Daniel Kokin, president of Sector Labs and the inventor of the patented cup:

"The practice of 'making room' seems trivial, but it takes significant resources to produce and transport coffee across the globe. By the time coffee reaches the customers, about 2,500 gallons of fresh water will have been used to produce a single pound of coffee beans. The R4 System eliminates the need for customers to waste coffee by giving them a better way to order, and unlike other sustainable solutions, we encourage the conservation of what goes in the cup."

When I spoke with Allen King about the market test that is being done on the test, he said Excellent Packaging has learned several things as it attempts to bring this product to market:

  • Even though Excellent Packaging would prefer to print the lines on the inside of the coffee company to make it easier to see the pour lines, it hasn't found a manufacturer that can print on the coffee cup liner AND receive the requisite approvals for food contact. The company is researching alternatives.
  • The company is also researching alternatives for compostable and bio-based disposables, since this is a big push for corporate cafeterias that are interested in the R4 concept. (The current version is lined with polyethinol materials.) The challenge is pricing. "Most of the sustainable cups costs more. In certain markets that is not an issue, but in some operators, you just can't pull this off," King said. "The cost needs to be on par with a traditional coffee cup."
  • Customer and barista education will probably be more difficult than Sector Labs or Excellent Packaging anticipated, so the partners are looking at ways to help spread information about the concept (ala the YouTube video below).

(Updated, June 8, 2011)
After my original post, I received some additional information from the R4 inventor, Daniel Kokin, about a bidirection cup design that will also be tested. That design, as shown below, would let you add the cream or milk either BEFORE the coffee is poured or AFTER the coffee is poured. So the markers work in either direction. This development addresses some of the comments and observations in the great comment thread on this post.

Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure