‘Drink to dust’: Startup says it’s enough to smash its clay alternative to plastic cups
Disposable plastic and paper cups are an environmental mess. GaeaStar, a startup based in Berlin and San Francisco, thinks it can do better with just clay, water, salt and sand.
After testing disposable clay cups and bowls in Germany, GaeaStar announces that it is preparing to introduce its products to the United States via a trial with Verve (the Californian coffee chain, not The group).
To make the disposable containers, the startup says it has developed a special 3D printer that produces them in “30 seconds or less”. The company declined to share photos of the printer, which it described as patent pending. There’s nothing new about clay, and in a statement GaeaStar acknowledged this, saying it was “inspired by ancient Indian culture”.
To fund its Verve pilot and future US collaborations, GaeaStar has raised a $6.5 million seed round from investors including Morningside and Dart Labs.
From an environmental perspective, the single-use cup problem in the United States shares some commonalities with the single-occupant vehicle problem. In each case, a relatively new and ineffective behavior now seems deeply entrenched in society. Whether you’re talking about transporting iced lattes in plastic cups or people in metal eggs, there are better ways to move these things, if only people behaved differently. But will people change and do they want it?
It’s a silly thought experiment, but there’s something interesting about where it breaks down: Replacing a ton of cars with mass transit requires, say, real work – including the development of vast infrastructures and rethinking where and how many of us live. On the other hand, killing disposable cups requires people to carry reusable canteens. It sounds. . . comparatively quite easy.
Yet change is difficult on any scale, so we are looking for alternatives. We’re electrifying single-occupancy vehicles and building ostensibly better disposable cups, striving to mitigate the damage we cause without really changing much to our way of life. Some people see these compromises as a distraction, but in the case of disposable cups, GaeaStar founder Sanjeev Mankotia calls this meeting people “where they are”.
“It’s the reality of Western culture that people are constantly on the go and are now used to being disposable rather than carrying around a reusable cup,” Mankotia told TechCrunch via email. “We know recycling doesn’t work and our ships can go straight to the trash without guilt.” When Mankotia says “recycling doesn’t work”, the CEO is referring to the fact that most plastics are never recycled.
GaeaStar hasn’t paid for a full life-cycle analysis of the environmental cost of its clay cups, but the company says it plans to use its new funds to do so in 2023. Mankotia went on to tell TechCrunch that its internal analysis and estimates “show us that we are using much less water and energy compared to historical suppliers of paper or plastic.”
GaeaStar also aims to establish cup printing centers close to its customers and to source clay locally. Calling it a micro-factory model, GaeaStar said that in Germany it even delivers ships using e-bikes. One day, the startup aims to offer a table printer to restaurants so that they can “print cups on demand at the point of sale”.
The startup sent TechCrunch a sample tumbler engraved with a Verve logo and invited me to reuse it as many times as I wanted, then smash it up or even use it as a pot for a plant. GaeaStar’s cup is thin and not as sturdy as plastic, but I found it to be more than capable of holding multiple coffees. Also, the novelty of a disposable clay in the United States makes it rather fun to use.
GaeaStar’s latest fundraising follows an earlier pre-seed round of $1.7 million, the company said. Its other investors in the new round include At Inc., Sand Hill Angels, VSC and Climate Capital.
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