Growing compostable gourd cups

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2019

Gourd cups have been making a splash since their launch last year by New York-based design agency Crème, in the USA. Named HyO cups,
the firm is looking to branch out by launching a kickstarter campaign
that is hoped to fund a scale-up and secure supply contracts.

The project is rooted in agricultural history. Gourds have been used as water carriers for centuries, and Japanese farmers have been cultivating pre-shaped produce for years. Then, Crème added modern technology to help bring the concept to the mass market.

By 3D printing moulds and securing them around budding plants, the team set up a hydroponic system to grow gourds in the shape of either a multifaceted, stackable cup or a pinch-neck carafe. The fully grown gourd fills its mould, is removed from the plant and left to dry out. With the fleshy inner removed, the skin dries and firms up, resulting in a solid, fibrous container that is practical and compostable with food waste.

It takes six weeks to grow a cup and each plant completes six harvest cycles a year. HyO’s are intended for hot drinks and are robust enough to withstand three to six uses before they start to degrade.

From a small garden plot, Crème relocated the project to a lab inside a shipping container to better control the environmental conditions, eliminate damage from animals and pests, and ensure consistency of the cup crop. Now the firm is working with a gourd farm in Pennsylvania to confirm which gourd types are the most suitable for mass production.

The project began as a response to the number of coffee cups going to landfill – an estimated 16 billion virgin pulp and 25 billion Styrofoam cups a year in the USA alone. Yes, HyO has limitations – for instance, the one-bud-per-cup system requires a lot of plants and space to produce the equivalent of just one tree’s worth of cups. But the takeaway coffee problem is largely about disposable culture, so achieving a steady stream of convenience compostables will be crucial to addressing waste management among those resistant to behavioural change.