This fascinating story suggests that clay cups modeled after the ones from the Indus valley in India are free from harm to the ecology. Maybe.

GaeStar is a startup ( making 3D printed cups and other containers out of clay. They can be used a few times and then discarded, but because they are made of clay, they are easily smashed into dirt, with no harm to the ecology.

Here is what they say on their website:

Recycling is a time and energy consuming process. At GaeaStar, we eliminate the need for recycling with our geo-neutral materials. Let’s talk about the differences between biodegradable, compostable and geo-neutral. A biodegradable item will break down under certain conditions, with the help of bacteria or other living organisms. However, this does not mean it is environmentally inert – plastic can biodegrade to microplastic, which is still harmful for the environment. A compostable item is biodegradable organic matter that can completely break down to make nutrient rich compost. A material that is geo-neutral will have no impact on the environment. It does not need to be recycled. It comes from earth and returns to earth in essentially the same form. This is the type of simple solution we are leveraging at GaeStar, by engineering materials for nature.


We use clay – used by humans (and animals) for thousands of years, an abundant natural resource – to manufacture our cups. Other than that, the only additional ingredients are water and salt – they come from the earth and can return to the earth without further processing. Add to that the regional sourcing of raw materials and local cup production and distribution and you’ve got one of the most sustainable cradle-to-grave solutions for single-use cups.

Inspired by ancient and modern South Asian culture, GaeaStar uses 3D printing to create mostly single-use cups and bowls for coffee shops and the fast-food industry made of clay, water and salt that disintegrate into dust upon disposal. That leaves zero harmful waste, the startup says.

They claim to have already made one million (1,000,000) cups. And because they are 3-D printed, they fan be made locally (presumably having been shipped the required clay mixture).

Are they truly completely circular, with no harm to the environment? For this, we have the usual answer: “it all depends.”

How was the clay obtained? Presumably by mining. Yes, amateur’s can simply dig it up, but if one is manufacturing things in volume, the clay comes from open-pit mines or in some locations underground mines. These efforts require a lot of machinery, usually fossil-fuel based. And then the clay has to be leaned, dried, and processed by calcining, bleaching, blunging, and extruding. And of course transporting the finished product to the manufacturing site. And even running 3D printers requires electric power and maintenance and repair of the printers. (I don’t know what calcining and blunging mean: my source was this article from the United States Government’s Environmental Protection Agency:

And when the clay containers are disposed, to ensure that they are actually turned back into dirt, they must be discarded properly. If thrown into the average garbage site (or even a recycling container) they may not actually be treated appropriately.

I am not trying to discredit the idea: It is a wonderful development. But it is too soon to call it environmentally harmless.

This is a great improvement over single use plastic or cardboard cups (with a thin plastic lining that makes recycling difficult). But it does still come at some cost.