A disposable, bowl-shaped clay cup and a modern paper cup used by Air India

Disposable cups and recycled exhibitions

By Kayte McSweeney, Community Partnerships Manager and Julia Farley, Curator, British and European Iron Age Collections

Publication date: 11 February 2020

Single-use and disposable objects are not a recent phenomenon, but the environmental impact of modern-day single-use items is huge. Kayte McSweeney and Julia Farley examine two disposable cups made 3,500 years apart that are on display in our current free exhibition, and take a look at what the Museum is doing to reduce its environmental impact.

Disposable cups and recycled exhibitions

The current Asahi Shimbun Displays, Disposable? Rubbish and us, begins with two very different disposable cups. Disposable and single-use objects are about convenience, but they're also more than that. Investing valuable labour and resources in things that may only be used once can be a way to show off wealth, power and status.

Paper cup advertising Air India.
A single-use cup made for Air India by a company in Finland.

The one cup shown above may well be familiar – a small waxed-paper cup which displays the logo of Air India. It was used for serving hot drinks on flights and at airports, and was acquired by a British Museum curator travelling through Delhi in 1991. But, rather than being made in India, the cup was commissioned from a company in Finland. The logo style also speaks to the global trend for minimalist design in the early 1990s. Together these international connections helped to position the airline as a global brand.

The other cup is perhaps more surprising – it was made on Crete during the Minoan period around 3,500 years ago. Looking closely at the cup shows that it has been hastily made. It was turned on a potter’s wheel, and the finger impressions of the maker are still visible inside. The bottom is uneven where string or wire, used to take it off the wheel, has cut into the base on the first attempt.

Pottery conical cup with prominent wheel-marks on interior. Squashed side.
Single-use clay cups like this were made for feasts and celebrations on the island of Crete.

Thousands of these cups were made, often in quite a standard shape and size. They are found in large dumps, sometimes of hundreds of cups, at palaces like Knossos – urban centres with a main building known as a 'palace'. They are often thrown away in one piece – they could have been used again, but were discarded instead.

We know that large numbers of people gathered at Minoan palaces for celebrations, festivals and feasts. While simple fired-clay cups like these could have had many uses, their low-effort production, standardised size, the places they were used and the way they were dumped all suggest that many were designed to be disposable – used to serve wine to guests, and thrown away at the end of the event. Other ancient societies, including cities in Bronze Age India, also used single-use clay cups. Many present-day communities in North India and Pakistan use similar disposable 'kulhar' cups for serving tea and yoghurt, but these are increasingly giving way to plastic-coated paper cups.

A disposable, bowl-shaped clay cup and a modern paper cup used by Air India
Two disposable cups made 3,500 years apart.

Today, we are more and more concerned about the impact of disposable objects, and for good reason – the materials used and the scale of production have changed dramatically in the last 3,500 years. Disposable cups made from clay will have little environmental effect when they are thrown away, whereas plastic or plastic-coated paper will take decades or even centuries to biodegrade, and may even break down into microplastics which can enter the food chain if they are not disposed of properly.

Ancient societies were also not producing anything like the quantity of disposable cups that we do. Over 300 billion disposable paper cups are now made globally every year, and even more single-use plastic cups. These levels of production and consumption are unsustainable, not just because of the vast amount of waste they generate, but also the materials required and carbon emissions from the manufacturing process. Modern paper cup production uses millions of trees and billions of gallons of water every year.

A selection of infographics on display in the exhibition.
A selection of infographics on display in the exhibition.

We all have a part to play in this international problem. At the British Museum, we are committed to reducing our environmental impact. Last year we had over 6.2 million visitors, and providing refreshments to thirsty Museum-goers is essential. As part of the research for this exhibition we spoke to Benugo, the Museum's catering partner, about the disposable cups that are used in our cafés and restaurants. In 2018, Benugo served over a million hot drinks at the Museum. They use ceramic cups wherever possible, and encourage visitors to bring reusable cups if they can, but in busy areas and for visitors who have travelled a long way to reach us, these solutions are less likely to work. 630,000 disposable cups were used at the Museum in 2018.

Wherever possible, Benugo source packaging made from recycled materials and recycle the waste that we produce, but it is very hard to recycle paper cups – the plastic lining which makes them waterproof is difficult to separate from the paper. None of the waste from the British Museum goes to landfill, and all our non-recyclable rubbish is collected and compacted on site to reduce the number of lorry collections needed. To further reduce emissions, the waste is shipped by barge along the River Thames to an energy recovery facility, where it is incinerated. The energy produced is then sent to the National Grid. In 2018, energy recovered through the Museum's waste operation was enough to power 223 UK homes for a month.

Display boards and objects from the exhibition Disposable? Rubbish and us
Inside the Asahi Shimbun Displays Disposable? Rubbish and us showing the recycled and re-purposed exhibition build.

The Disposable exhibition itself was also built from recycled materials. The design team worked hard to find materials and equipment which could be given a second life, and the designer's idea was not to use any new materials. All of the display cases and plinths were repurposed from last year's major exhibition on manga, and the labels were screen-printed onto paper cut from the banners that originally hung in the Great Court .

These small steps are part of a much bigger global conversation about more sustainable and environmentally conscious production, consumption and disposal. Creating rubbish is an unavoidable by-product of being human, but the choices we make, and the actions we take to reduce waste are more important now than ever before.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays Disposable? Rubbish and us was in Room 3 until 23 February 2020.