One of the biggest problems of the food and beverage industry is the waste produced by single-use plastics. Because of this, there’s been a movement in the container industry over the past decade to create biodegradable plastics made with plant-based inputs, which suppliers claim can be put into the compost bin or recycled. While many of these approaches promise to reduce the amount of plastic in the waste stream, some experts still consider them problematic.
This is why a new company named GaeaStar is attempting something entirely different, aiming to end single-use plastics not by creating more eco-friendly plastics, but by employing a centuries-old Indian tradition: clay cups that disintegrate into dust.
The idea behind the company first emerged when Sanjeev Mankotia was walking around New Delhi in the mid-2000s. His cousin ordered a chai from a street vendor, and upon finishing her drink, she threw the cup on the ground, breaking it into pieces. Mankotia, who was born in India but spent most of his life in the U.S., pointed out that she was littering and asked her why she had done so.
“She said, ‘It’s made out of dirt, why do you care?'” Mankotia recalled in an interview with The Spoon. “And I didn’t have a response to that.”
He realized that these clay vessels and their disposal method were long-standing traditions in India, and he wondered if this could work elsewhere.
“I thought, ‘Why can’t we do this in the West instead of having these paper cups with plastic inside?'” Mankotia said. “And in reality, it’s actually a better user experience.”
At the time, Mankotia, an engineer by training, was a consultant in the finance industry. For the next decade and a half, he continued his consulting career while contemplating how to turn this container idea into a viable business. He eventually decided to pursue the idea after feeling he had achieved all he could in his consulting career.
“I felt that I had climbed that mountain in consulting, having C-suite positions,” Mankotia explained. “And I felt I was at the point where I had this idea, and I wanted to really start working on something for the next generation.”
He knew the containers in India were handcrafted by local artisans, who sourced clay from riverbeds and made hundreds of them per day to dry in the sun. However, Mankotia knew this approach would need to be adapted for the Western market, where he envisioned a company supplying restaurants and coffee shops with these containers.
Drawing on his experience as a consultant, where he had encountered additive manufacturing, Mankotia knew that a 3D printer capable of producing these containers at scale would provide a solution. However, no printers on the market were designed for the high-volume output needed to make thousands of cups daily.
So Mankotia decided to build his own.
“We developed a printer that could print one in less than 30 seconds,” Mankotia said. “And we want to try and get it to less than 10 seconds and closer and closer to the point of use.”
After Mankotia and some engineers developed the first printer, they realized they would need a system to produce the cups near the customer. So they began designing a micro-factory where they would print the cups and dry and cure them within a day using an oven.
The company’s first micro-factory launched in Berlin in 2022, and it was in the same city where they held their first pop-up and quickly sold out of the 3500 cups they made. After that, they officially launched in Berlin and are now making tens of thousands of containers per month, including ice cream cups for a German ice cream shop called Rosa Canina.
With a fresh infusion of capital from a $6.5M seed funding round, the company has its sites set on the U.S. market. Mankotia says the first market they will open is in San Francisco, where they will build a 200 square-meter micro-factory that will eventually feature up to 4 printers. He believes that once the micro factory is up and running at full efficiency, the company should be able to produce up to 4 million cups annually per location.
As for the cups themselves, one obvious concern is whether they can withstand the handling of a consumer because no one wants their drink container to break when they set it down or squeeze too hard. But, according to Mankotia, the containers have ten times the strength of a paper cup and are strong enough to be put in the dishwasher. The company believes some will keep and reuse the cups when they take them home. The point of it all, said Mankotia, is they now have a guilt-free choice.
In the future, Mankotia wants to continue to build printers that could eventually manufacture the cups on premise, where an operator could make cups with the push of a button. To do that, he said the company is working on eventually incorporating the technology into the printer that can cure the vessels quickly. The technology involves energy pulses similar to those used in microwaves, and the company is currently working with some German research institutes with expertise in the technology.
The company’s first partner in the U.S. is Verve Coffee Roasters. The coffee roaster will give its customers at select cafes an option to have a GaeaStar container when ordering particular food and beverages. GaeaStar says they will use this collaboration to fine-tune its original container prototype “to meet the needs of Verve and other U.S. businesses.”