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Motion Detector No. 19: To Stay or to Go?

Museum Europäischer Kulturen

In the Motion Detector series, the Museum Europäischer Kulturen (MEK, Museum of European Cultures) shows objects from its collection and loans on current topics that are moving people in Europe. The 19th Motion Detector deals with disposable packaging for food and drink. The presentation can be viewed in the lobby of the MEK until mid March 2022.

What was unimaginable in the 1980s, has now become part of everyday life for many people. On the way to work or during the lunch break, you buy yourself a cup of coffee, and instead of sitting down in a cafe to enjoy it, you drink it on the go from a disposable cup.

These take-away paper cups have become a symbol of the fast-paced working life and of a supposed cosmopolitan “coolness”. On average, 34 disposable cups pass through the hands of every German each year. This also results in an enormous mountain of waste, 2.8 billion cups worth, accumulating every year in Germany alone.

Just as life has accelerated at the beginning of the 21st century through digitalisation and the democratisation of air travel, industrialisation and the expansion of the rail network had the same effect during the 19th century, with the first paper cups dating back to that time. These “cups”, essentially flat paper bags, could be squeezed open and filled with water from a spring or tap. They cost 5 cents and were meant to be used only once. The cups became especially popular during the flu pandemic at the end of the 1910s, when many people were afraid of catching that disease from sharing enamel cups. Parallels can be drawn to the current coronavirus pandemic. The increased consumption of takeout food and beverages has expanded the use of take-away cups and intensified the waste problem caused by disposable plastic tableware.

The EU-wide ban on single-use plastic was therefore urgently needed. As of July 2021, polystyrene cups, plastic tableware and straws, as well as other single-use items may no longer be produced and circulated. Since the beginning of 2021, plastic waste that is difficult to recycle may no longer be exported for processing outside of the EU. Even with the current and planned measures, this mountain of waste can only be reduced at a much slower pace than it was created.

Numerous reusable to-go cups were already being developed during the 20th century, from cups made of metal or plastic that could be flattened to insulated cups made of porcelain and ”recups”, a deposit-based system for reusable to-go cups that is increasingly available in various German cities. Coffee to go is here to stay, but what about disposable cups?