‘Drink to dust’: Startup says just smash its clay alternative to plastic cups

Disposable plastic and paper cups are an environmental mess. GaeaStar, a startup based in Berlin and San Francisco, thinks it can do better with just clay, water, salt and sand.

After piloting disposable clay cups and bowls in Germany, GaeaStar says it is gearing up to introduce its products to the U.S. via a trial with Verve (the California coffee chain, not the band).

To make the disposable containers, the startup says it developed a special 3D-printer that churns them out in “30 seconds or less.” The company declined to share photos of the printer, which it described as patent pending. There’s nothing new about clay, and in a statement, GaeaStar acknowledged as much, saying it was “inspired by ancient Indian culture.”

To fund its Verve pilot and future collaborations in the U.S., GaeaStar rolled together a $6.5 million seed round from investors such as Morningside and Dart Labs.

Through an environmental lens, the U.S.’s single-use cup problem shares some commonalities with its single-occupancy vehicle problem. In each case, a relatively new, inefficient behavior now seems totally ingrained in society. Whether you’re talking about transporting iced lattes in plastic cups or people in metal eggs, there are better ways of moving such things around, if only folks would behave differently. But will people change, and do they want to?

This is a silly thought experiment, but there’s something interesting about where it falls apart: Replacing a ton of cars with public transit requires, like, real work — including vast infrastructure development and rethinking where and how many of us live. On the other hand, killing disposable cups demands that folks tote around reusable canteens. This sounds . . . comparably pretty easy.

Yet, change is hard at any scale, and so we look for alternatives. We electrify single-occupancy vehicles and build ostensibly better disposable cups, striving to mitigate the damage we do without really changing much about how we live. Some people consider such compromises a distraction, but in the case of disposable cups, GaeaStar founder Sanjeev Mankotia calls this meeting people “where they are.”

“It’s the reality of Western culture that people are constantly on the go and are now accustomed to disposability vs. carrying around a reusable mug,” Mankotia told TechCrunch over email. “We know recycling doesn’t work and our vessels can go right in the trash guilt-free.” When Mankotia says “recycling doesn’t work,” the CEO is referencing how most plastic is never recycled.

GaeaStar hasn’t paid for a complete life-cycle analysis of the environmental cost of its clay cups, but the company says it plans use its new funds to do so in 2023. Mankotia went on to tell TechCrunch that its internal analysis and estimates “show us that we’re using significantly less water and energy when compared to paper or plastic incumbents.”

Gaeastar founder and CEO Sanjeev Mankotia

GaeaStar founder Sanjeev Mankotia. Image Credits: Gaeastar

GaeaStar also aims to establish cup-printing centers near its customers and source clay locally. Calling this a micro-factory model, GaeaStar said in Germany it even delivers vessels using e-bikes. One day, the startup aims to offer a tabletop printer to restaurants so they can “print the cups on demand at the point of sale.”

The startup sent TechCrunch a sample cup etched with a Verve logo and invited me to reuse it as many times as I’d like, and later smash it, or even use it as a pot for a plant. GaeaStar’s cup is thin, and it isn’t sturdy like plastic, but I found that it’s more than capable of housing multiple coffees. Plus, the novelty of a clay disposable in the U.S. makes it kind of fun to use.

GaeaStar’s latest fundraise follows an earlier $1.7 million pre-seed round, the company said. Its other investors in the new round include At Inc., Sand Hill Angels, VSC and Climate Capital.

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