Innovations in Coffee Cups

Compleat Cup - Photo Wendy Maeda-Boston Globe

When we look at coffee cups as a packaging we have seen little innovation over the last years. With the exception of the paperboard cup with foldable handles, the ordinary coffee cup (paperboard or plastic) is the preferred packaging format already for years on end.
Recently some innovations in coffee cups got our attention.

The world is absolutely addicted to coffee. The world production of coffee is nearly 7 million tons a year. In a 2010 report, Agriculture and Food Canada indicates it is the most popular hot beverage and the top food-service drink in the country.
Canadians slobber 14 billion – yes, billion – cups of coffee per year (410 cups per capita). But that’s nothing compared to the rest of the world. Each Fin, Swede, Dutchman or Norwegian takes in between 1,000 and 1,500 cups of coffee each year.

According to Starbucks, 66 billion cups of coffee are drunk every year in the U.S. and a full three quarters of those cups of coffee are enjoyed at home. The other 25% of coffee is drunk at the office, traveling, or in a coffee shop (CNN Money).

The coffee shop industry in the U.S. includes 20,000 stores with combined annual revenue of about USD 11 billion. The industry is highly concentrated at the top and fragmented at the bottom: the top 50 companies have over 70% of industry sales. Coffee is one of the world’s largest commodities.

Although only some 25% of the coffee is served in paper or plastic cups, it is an incredible quantity of coffee cups. And almost all supplied with a plastic lid with an opening for inserting a straw or with a narrow opening for direct user consumption.

When we look at coffee cups as a packaging we have seen little innovation over the last years. With the exception of the paperboard cup with foldable handles, the ordinary coffee cup (paperboard or plastic) is the preferred packaging format already for years on end. We have seen some innovations in the lids. The most famous is the “colour-changing” lid from Smart Lid Systems that provides consumers with a visual indicator of product temperature. Infused with a colour-changing additive, the Smart Lid coffee-cup lid goes from “coffee-bean brown” to “glowing red” after being placed on a cup containing a hot beverage.
But that was in 2006. Nothing impressive has changed since. Except recently some innovations in coffee cups got our attention.

The first is a remarkable one. Still in the design/prototype stage but with immense potential: The Compleat cup. A polyethylene-coated paper cup lacking a lid, as it has an origami folded drinking spout. A clever idea! Let’s look at it in detail.

The fill, fold, and sip coffee cup

Compleat Coffee Cup, innovated by architect Peter Herman from Boston/USA, is a simple, enclosed cup with a drinking spout. By folding the top into an arc, you close the asymmetrical paper cup, entirely eliminating the need for a separate lid. The flaps close in such a way that no liquid escapes, unless you choose to sip from the spout.

Thorntons chocolate melts

Creating an arc at the top of a folding carton isn’t innovative, as it is done frequently, particularly with folding cartons for confectionary products, such as chocolates. Neither is folding a cone very innovative. But what is innovative in this design is that it has never been done for a liquid proof packaging. Look at the paperboard blank and although it might not be the most efficient use of material, the result is a cleverly compiled coffee cup.

Let’s have a look at the text of the patent application (US 20100314434) for this coffee cup. In the patent description the cup is called a vessel, but for the rest it explains how the paperboard is folded.

Abstract from patent: “In a first embodiment of the invention there is provided a vessel that includes a sheet of flexible material, cut, rolled, and affixed to form a frusto-conically shaped base region. The sheet, when rolled, also includes an upper region having two opposing flaps. Each flap is delineated from a remaining portion of the sheet by a path along which the sheet is scored. The flaps, when folded along their respective paths, define a single elevated drinking portion having a spout formed between an extension of the base region and at least one of the two flaps.

One of the two flaps may be an outer flap and the other flap may be an inner flap such that the outer flap overlies the inner flap when the two flaps are folded. The outer flap has a first edge shaped to coincide, when the flaps are folded, approximately with the path of scoring in the inner flap. The outer flap may also include a closure tab formed as part of the sheet. The closure tab protrudes from a scored line along the first edge of the outer flap. The scored line permits the closure tab to be folded to overlie a portion of the base region. The closure tab may also be removably attachable to the portion of the base region and may include an adhesive layer”.

Note that the bottom is added separately, like the standard coffee cups. The patent application states that “the vessel includes a bottom formed from a second sheet of material, affixed in an opening of the base region, to enable the vessel to retain a liquid placed therein via an opening in the upper region existing when the flaps are unfolded. The bottom is generally circular. The bottom may be formed from material that is a part of the first sheet of material. The bottom may also be folded into a circular flat-bottomed surface having a circumferential wall wherein the circumferential wall is adhered to an interior portion of the base region”.

So far the patent application. Besides being more eco-friendly than the traditional cup and lid combo, it has the potential to save money by taking out the cost of a lid, even though the Compleat uses about 29-33% more paper than a traditional cup.

The Compleat design has another advantage. Market surveys show that consumers hold coffee cups for an average of 16 minutes – that’s 16 minutes that retailers can build a more robust and intimate relationship with the consumer. Introducing two extra flaps in lieu of a lid allows retailers to use the top of the cup for messaging, whether it’s straight advertising or a more subtle interaction with consumers.

But let’s face it. Getting rid of the supplemental plastic lid and still being able to keep the hot coffee safe during transport and sip when you want it, is very attractive.
It is now up to a paperboard manufacturer to pick up the challenge as the inventor is looking for licensees.

The second innovation is from Japan. It is just a simple addition to the traditional coffee cups, used worldwide. But clever it is.

Hot Magic Cup
Tokan Kogyo Co. Ltd., developed the, what they call the Surprise-Eco-Container or Hot Magic Cup. The, in principle, ordinary standard coffee cup automatically changes its outer layer shape as the thermal insulating layer pops out automatically when hot water, more than 85℃ is poured into the cup.

The Hot Magic Cup is universal and the eco-friendly containers have, according to the factory, a superior thermal insulating function to that of conventional double wall containers.

It is easy to hold and difficult to slip from the hands. Furthermore it has the same footprint in shipping and storage as the cups have the same size as an ordinary paper cup before use.

The next time we will have a look at developments in tea packaging. A very interesting part as tea drinking is almost always seen as a ritual. Quite different from coffee, which just is our daily drug.

7 responses to “Innovations in Coffee Cups

  1. How is using more paper and chopping down more trees sustainable? Polypropylene and polyethylene bags are made from natural gas, not petroleum. In a comparison of of paper vs. plastic, paper bags use more petroleum in shipping, and creation vs that of a plastic bag. Same should apply to a paper cup, wouldn’t you say? Nice idea, but don’t label it sustainable.

    • Leslie, you are wrong in many ways. First natural gas or petroleum, as you claim, are finite resources. Second the trees “chopped” for paperboard are sustainably grown and cared for. It’s a renewable resource. And prey tell me, why do paper bags use more petroleum in shipping and creation. Look into the reports of sustainability and LCA and you come up with another view. Conclusion: The Compleat Coffee Cup still is a sustainable solution, in comparison with a plastic coffee cup with a plastic lid. No doubt about that.

      • 2 cents from a guy in the biz …

        Paper is generally heavier than a plastic product when used in the same application. More weight equals greater fuel consumed in transit.
        At the rate that paper is consumed worldwide, forest reserves are not sustainable. In many applications, plastic is significantly more recyclable than paper.This does not mean more widely collected than paper, it means many plastics, and certainly the one in question here (ps coffee lid), can be upcycled over and over into the same product – without the use of virgin material. Paper on the other hand must be downcycled or continually reinforced with virgin fibre to achieve the same strength/performance.
        Replanting forests with respect to sustainability and climate change impact is a debated issue due in large part by the methods used to replant forests. Old growth/biodiverse ecosystems destroyed for paper pulp and replaced by monocropped tree farms are far from effective or sustainable.

        By the way, what material is providing the liquid barrier for this “paper” cup. I strongly suspect it is polyethylene. This makes the cup effectively unrecyclable. I say effectively because it technically CAN be recycled, but because of the plastic film used no recyclers collect, sort and segregate this material … at least not yet.
        Speaking from an environmental point of view, it is generally sound advice to use ‘less’ in any packaging when replacing a package for environmental gain. Of course, a life cycle analysis must always be taken into consideration as using less is notably over simplified. But the fact that this cups uses ‘more’ to replace the lid, and in this case the lid is not overly damaging, then it is not an environmental improvement. The universal environmental issue facing the world is climate change. This cup does not appear to provide any step forward towards offsetting the impact of carbon emmissions on climate change, nor can it be considered sustainable. And, for the record, there are no degrees of sustainable, something is either sustainable or it is not.

        However, it is very innovative cup. It looks pretty cool and offers unique marketing opportunities if not by the printing capabilities, then by it’s unique design alone.
        Certainly the designer is deserving of praise for his unique design.

        ok, maybe that was 2 and a half cents …

      • Let me add a cent. First: There is absolutely no problem in recycling paperboard coated with PE. Maybe in the US you don’t have the facilities, but in Europe and several other parts of the world they are in operations. It is a false claim that paper/PE is not recyclable. The claim exists as many a community doesn’t collect selectively.
        Second: Your claim “…. there are no degrees of sustainable,..” is ridiculous. In case there is no gradation, there is no sustainability at all. No packaging, and for that matter material is sustainable in the absolute 100% sense. In other words, in your thinking, sustainability doesn’t exist and that is 100% correct if you don’t put in gradations.

  2. A few years ago I developed a coffee cup lid that opens when the coffee is at the correct temp, and closes when it’s too hot. Employs a simple plastic bilayer flap (the organic equivalent of a bimetallic strip) cantilevered over the sipping hole. Very cheap and easy to integrate with existing vacu-formed lids. In the course of patenting the idea, discovered related Japanese art to automatically vent Ramen soup containers in the microwave.Steam out, then closes to keep heat in.

  3. Dear Anton, I enjoyed reading your article, from the professional aspect.
    about the comments – Its a fact which coffee been drank via paper. its much better and less arming the environment then Foam cups, and still nobody find a better solution, We all wait…
    with Kind Regards, Ami Moshe

  4. The beverage cup that I invented offers a full to the brim, when your cup is not full to the top, the large portion missing when you try it you will see the inch is actually 1/3 of the cup of beverage.

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