Why the Compleat Cup is Incomplete


There’s been a lot of buzz in both the design and coffee worlds this past week about an innovative take on the disposable cup called, Compleat. The concept was developed by Architect Peter Herman and refined by graphic designer Daren Bascome, both based in Boston. The problem behind it is a persistent one that many people have attempted to solve—reduce the waste from disposable cups.

Last year Starbucks sponsored the BetaCup contest on Jovoto, a forum for product design competitions, to develop a more sustainable to-go cup. The winner wasn’t a cup at all, but a game that served as an incentive to bring your own reusable cup. I found the winning solution quite admirable, but have yet to hear about it implemented in Starbucks stores.

The question whats a good paper ice cream cup latest attempt to solve one of the more annoying environmental problems in the coffee industry. While it’s a nice concept, I don’t think its ready for prime time and I wouldn’t expect to see them popping up in coffee shops around the world just yet.

While the main pitch is that you reduce the use of a plastic lid, which is of course a scourge in itself—many lids alone can be recycled. The cups are the problem, because the paper is fused to a thin plastic lining that most US recycling systems can’t handle.

Even if the lining used a bio plastic, those only degrade if they are properly disposed of, i.e. composted. Most places in the US don’t have compost programs in place. So while these cups will reduce part of the problem, it still leaves a pressing one that can really only be solved by bringing your own mug.

The design may be iconic, but what about the people—myself included—who prefer to drink without a lid? If you open the folds, I don’t see any practical way to drink from this like a normal cup.

When the cup is folded up to create a drinking spout, it forms a direct funnel into your mouth. While this may be a great idea for cold drinks on hot days, it makes me pause when considering hot coffee. There’s no longer a barrier to allow for the “is this going to scald my mouth” sip while drinking blindly.

Admittedly these observations have been made without having yet tried a Compleat cup, however, I feel that I’ve drank coffee from enough beverage receptacles to make an educated critique of it. Once I’ve had the opportunity to try one, I’ll be sure to follow up with the results.

The Compleat Cup

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  • Reply sL 12/13/2011 at 11:34 am

    I think they look like giant versions of a children’s sippy cup. The spout looks a bit too much like something to suck on rather than drink out of.

  • Reply Peter 12/14/2011 at 8:52 pm

    Hi! This is Peter Herman, the cup designer writing in response to your post.

    First off, I wanted to whole-heartedly agree with you that the Compleat is not a wholesale solution to the wasteful practice of using disposable cups (with or without) plastic tops; it’s only a step in that direction. It simply offers a way to reduce, not eliminate the environmental insult of one-use beverage containers. However, given that as many as 3 billion paper cups are used per year by many major retailers, a small per-unit reduction in materials used can make a notable environmental difference.

    The fact that the Compleat is a single-stream material, manufacturing, distribution, use, and recycling solution is a notable step in the right direction. Not having two separate pieces to form a spill-resistant vessel inherently saves energy at every point along its (albeit) short lifecycle. And getting rid of the non-renewable resource plastic top certainly provides an important environmental benefit.

    I am aware of the many composting and recycling problems that plastic-coated (and even cellulosic plastic) paper cups present. Frankly, paper cups today can only be down-cycled to something less than a cup (like napkins) because it is not currently possible to separate the waterproof liner from the paper in the standard recycling process. To that end, the MIT materials department (sponsored by Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, & Tim Horton’s) is actively working on developing a new fully recyclable waterproof paper (that the FDA will hopefully approve). If they are successful in their efforts, I hope the Compleat will be fabricated from that new technology paper.

    With regard to the spout, it does not speed the delivery of liquid. In fact, I find it a nicer experience than the little hole on top of a plastic lid because the flow rate is more controllable since there is much more distance between the top of the liquid and one’s mouth. Furthermore, if you have a nose, you’ll like the fact that the tall spout prevents one’s proboscis from hitting the top of the cup. Plastic tops don’t address that issue. All this mentioned, if you don’t like a top on your paper cup, stick to the conventional type because you are right, the Compleat is not great for drinking out of when the flaps are up. . .
    Lastly, the Compleat is envisioned to be used as much as a cold-cup as hot cup. And frankly, for all the obvious liability reasons, cold beverages are clearly a less dangerous business prospect.

    All my points notwithstanding, thank you very much for taking the time you did to put together a great observational article. Your points are well-taken and to the extent that they may help us improve the cup over time, I’m grateful.


    • Reply bwj 12/15/2011 at 11:49 am


      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to the article. I understand the larger issues aren’t simple ones and every step in the right direction is a good one. I would love to know more about the MIT project and hope they’re successful.

      I hadn’t considered the nose benefit, but I can see how that might be nice. Will you happen to be at the SCAA event in April? I’d definitely like to try them out.

      Your minds in the right place and I applaud you for working on solving this problem, it’s a growing one that really needs to be addressed on several fronts.

      All the Best,

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