The Total Opposite of Polluting Keurig Pods: Coffee Cups That Grow Flowers

Alex Henige’s Kickstarter project could change the afterlife of your caffeine fix.
Mar 4, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Coffee might be the most essential life-giving property of your entire day, but if recent news is any indication, making it is basically ruining the world. Take nonrecyclable K-Cups, the little pods popped into machines to instantly brew a single cup of coffee in the office break room, nine billion of which end up in landfills each year.

And the cappuccino-filled paper cup that makes the morning commute go down that much easier? One hundred forty-six billion of those get tossed every year.

That’s why Cal Poly landscape architecture student Alex Henige’s thesis project is such a promising one. The world’s first plantable coffee cup is made from a blend of postconsumer paper and cotton. It’s biodegradable and embedded with seeds. After serving as a vehicle for your caffeine fix, it lives a second life as the decomposing growing medium for a host of plants. Henige’s Kickstarter for the Reduce. Reuse. Grow. project reached its goal of $10,000 on Tuesday.

The pastoral recycling idea struck at a typically urban moment. “I was driving on the 101 down in Los Angeles, and there was a whole bunch of trash on the side of the road,” Henige recalled. “And I was thinking, ‘Wow, what if each piece of trash was a plant?’ ”

Henige has developed two prototypes for testing in California, whose diverse ecosystems will allow for experimenting with seeds in a variety of growing conditions. There’s the California native seeds cup and a garden vegetable mix, which right now only contains carrot seeds but may eventually include kale, chard, and green onions. The native mix—composed of more than 20 species, including California poppy, lupines, and desert bluebells—is far more diverse.

One of the initial challenges has been determining which seeds will work in the high-temperature environment of paper presses and to-go coffee, where seeds can be exposed to temperatures of 140 degrees or more for periods of 10 minutes at a time. With those conditions, Henige said, seeds that require fire to germinate—which is the case for many California wildflowers—are most ideal. But once he finds a commercial manufacturer and can begin testing and tweaking the machines, no seed will be off-limits. Still, the early challenge is establishing a standard that will remain: Seeds will always be coordinated with geographical regions, so as not to introduce invasive species.

The planting could be left up to consumers—finish your latte and feel free to plant the cup in an urban garden—but Henige also sees hotels and coffee shops taking an active role. Retailers could have special trash bins for the cups that, once full, could be picked up and planted at a reforestation site nearby. Once the product is fine-tuned, the technology could be applied to any number of paper products, including to-go containers, paper plates, and corrugated cardboard boxes.

It’s a way of getting consumers to interact with their trash in a new way, and ideally, Henige said, making corporations responsible for the waste they create.

“In the end I’m kind of aiming this toward businesses, the companies that are putting these products in our hands as consumers. What if we made these companies responsible for that end product and took that burden off the consumers?” he said.

It’s a model called cradle to cradle, and it’s been foundational to his education in architecture, wherein the purpose is to create a product that births something new, even in its disposal. The traditional cradle to grave product model is just, well, trash.

The plantable cup comes on the heels of KFC’s latest efforts to get consumers to waste less by eating more with its own version of waste-free coffee cup. Modeled after cronut mastermind Dominique Ansel’s “cookie shots,” the coffee cups themselves are edible—made of cookies, coated in sugar paper, lined in white chocolate. But critics have pointed out that edible packaging might not necessarily be a greener option.

“We need to be careful to ensure we aren’t just trading one kind of packaging for another,” Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the National Resources Defense Council, told MarketWatch. “We also need to make sure that the edible packaging is tasty and appropriate to the type of food being served, so that we don’t just trade off wasting packaging for wasting more food,” she added.

When it comes to the sustainability, Starbucks recently won high marks from the NRDC in its January report on consumer packaging. The group called Starbucks’ standards, along with McDonald’s, better than most. But the report still noted the glaring need for improvement—none of the 47 companies achieved “Best Practices” status.

“Single-use food and beverage packaging is a prime component of the plastic pollution in our oceans and waterways, which kills and injures marine life and poses a potential threat to human health. Companies have an opportunity and an obligation to curb this pollution. Better packaging design and improved support and adoption of recycling are key to turning the tide on this unnecessary waste,” the NRDC said in press release.

This leaves the playing field for folks like Henige wide open. His research for the plantable coffee cup project has led him to summer fieldwork in Central America, where he sees the Reduce. Reuse. Grow. cup as a solution to not one but two problems.

“These communities are living hand in hand with deforestation sites. They’re cutting down their forest in exchange for grazing land, so they can get food. So what if we had a piece of trash that could grow them food?” he said. “And that’s exactly what they have: They have piles and piles of trash that they can’t do anything with. If you had a whole pile that you can potentially feed your whole community, then I think that would help with deforestation. At least, it’s an alternative that could hopefully get other people thinking and creating some cool products like this.”

It might sound optimistic—and who would expect less from a 23-year-old?—but solving these problems is what drives Henige’s innovation, and it might be the kind of solution the fast-food and coffee industries need.

“In Nicaragua, where I was, they live off of $2 to $3 a day,” Henige said. “People around the world who are not living to our standards, and what this product could eventually mean to them some day if it eventually makes it to them, are a huge inspiration.”