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Touchy Feely

Textured surfaces act as an intuitive material labeling system while also accelerating biological decomposition via increased surface area.

Photo of Megan Valanidas
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Idea Title

Design is applicable across hot and cold cups.

Idea Summary

Textured surfaces act as intuitive material labeling system while accelerating biological decomposition via increased surface area.

Company / Organization Name (if applicable)


Website (if applicable)

Please include a visual (can be either 2D or 3D) representation/prototype of your concept. (required)

This resin prototype incorporates a textured surface labeling system. By maximizing surface area, the cup's nutrients are made available to existent microorganisms; accelerating degradation rates.


The Touchy Feely cup creates a framework for consumers to intuitively know these cups are compostable. By designing a tactile labeling system, we increase material recovery rates and dispel public confusion around materials and the waste stream. This design also addresses waste in our oceans/landscape by allowing waste to break down wherever it falls with increased rates of biological decomposition.

How It Works

By manufacturing new materials that look and feel similar to organic matter, we communicate to the consumer that this is a cup meant to break down biologically. These textures maximize surface area of the cup itself, allowing for accelerated degradation rates. Textured surfaces were inspired by fruit skins. Biomimetic patterns were chosen to recall surfaces that we might already consider as something one might ‘toss from a car window.’ Think banana or orange peels. 

The Touchy Feely Cup would be manufactured for cold drinks in a biopolymer similar to the resin prototype shown above. 

Hot cups in a fiber-based solution in mathematically based textures.

BiomimeticsBy designing surfaces from patterns inspired from Nature and Mathematics, we get the added benefit of maximized surface area which accelerates the biological degradation process.

These new materials will be conspicuously different than the materials they replace. Compostable, biodegradable cups can and should look completely different than any of the hot/cold to-go cups we’ve known as well as being easily digestible by the environment.

Materials + Recovery

The built-in haptic labeling system promotes higher rates of material understanding leading to greater material recovery. Consumers will intuitively know how to dispose of these cups by the way they feel and look.

This concept can be applied to a multitude of materials as long as they are rated for soil decomposition. Tests using material samples made from gelatin, agar and a mixture of the two produced materials that break down easily in living soils. Next, existing bio-based, petroleum-free, waxes applied to interior cup walls will test for liquid containment up to 5 hours.

The cold Touchy Feely Cup is in research to be manufactured from Novamont’s soil degradable Mater-Bi product, rated up to 100° C and breaks down in living soil. This material is denser than water. If it enters the waterways, this material will sink and degrade in soils on the ocean floor. Mater-Bi is soil and marine degradable.

Currently researching further soil positive solutions for hot cup solutions. SuStar's fiber-based materials makes a good case for a hot cup analog that is soil positive. Inks will be bio-based and soil compatible.

These cups will be made to food safety and industry standards. Only the exterior is textured, the interior cup walls remain smooth. 

material samples in gelatin:

Research + Collaboration

This design was built on interviews and collaborations with local waste management, Rhode Island Recovery Resource Center, Field's Point waste water facility chemical engineers, MIT Mediated Matter designers, marine biologists from the Rhode Island School of Design Nature Lab, biotech firm GingkoBioworks synthetic biologists, local business owners and investigations of the local waste stream and surrounding waterways.

This solution addresses which of the following:

  • Hot / Cold Fiber Cup
  • Cup Lids
  • Straws
  • Cup Sleeve
  • Cup Liner
  • All of the Above

How is your concept recoverable?

The Touchy Feely Cup is a part of a larger Bioplastics Circular Economy. Whether left behind carelessly or thoughtfully composted, all waste eventually rejoins the existing bacterial stream. By designing for microorganisms that will ultimately digest waste using Bacteria-Centered Design AND Human-Centered Design together, we can return materials that build soils instead of contaminating them. The cup perpetuates a closed loop, self-renewing system. The Touchy Feely cup will be made from compostable, biodegradable and bio-based materials. The cup's unique look can be easily identified as compostable. Cups will break down in municipal composting facilities or home compost piles. Touchy Feely is recoverable as a soil nutrient once it has been broken down. There is a growing market for nutrient rich compost. Corporations could choose to partner with existing compost facilities or invest in their own digestive facilities. Waste collected could be sold or put to use agriculturally.

How have you incorporated additional sustainability attributes (beyond recoverability) into your solution?

Most plastics end up as landfill or litter, going to the “wrong place.” Instead of searching for ever more places, we can instead design plastics that “fit” anyplace they fall. Wherever that may be. By intentionally designing for thoughtless acts, the plastics that end up in the ecosystem would no longer be ‘out of place’ but instead be in just the right location. Plastics can be designed that are inherently beneficial to Nature. Waste can become soil's building blocks.

What regions do you plan to address with your solution (and how will you accomplish this)?

The Touchy Feely Cup is designed for global use. Specific regions may require unique surfaces to address consumer understanding and soil compatibility.

Describe your target market. Who will benefit from your product?

The Touchy Feely cup is for consumers who are thoughtful about the environment but who still live a lifestyle that necessitates the convenience of a single-use cup.

What is the current stage of development of your idea?

  • Research & Early Testing
  • Prototyping

What are the biggest challenges you are facing today? What are existing gaps in your solution?

I've worked with biopolymers based in gelatin and agar. I've also experimented with breaking down local seaweeds to be cooked into new polymers. These materials are all very soil compatible and break down easily but have setbacks as well. I've experimented with coating these materials in a bio-based wax or even mixing the wax into the bioplastic solutions to achieve hydrophobia. I am still looking for a better solution for 3-5 hours of liquid containment. These experiments helped me to understand the manufacturing challenges of prototyping with a biobased material. I would like to begin prototyping in the Mater-Bi biopolymers. Funding has been a big obstacle to start R+D with more technical materials. Access to rotomolding and thermoforming on a large scale has been an impediment. I'd like to design for stacking and compact shipping.

Mentorship Needs (please select up to 3)

  • Business Model Development
  • Materials and Technical Development
  • Engineering and Manufacturing

Tell us about yourself and your team. What is your background and experience?

Megan Valanidas is a designer and researcher. She is currently a professor of industrial design at James Madison University. Valanidas was a featured designer and lecturer at RISD's Nature Lab Symposium on Biodesign: From Inspiration to Integration.

In what city are you located?

Harrisonburg, Virgina

In what country are you located?

United States

Please describe how becoming a Top Idea will support the growth of your concept.

This concept seems simple at first but has large implications in how we will understand biobased materials in the future. Success would mean facilitating material recovery via intuitive design and not relying on labels for recovery. Funding would support: Prototyping and testing in proposed materials and processes. Business plan including consumer-facing marketing and recoverability strategies. Refine designs to communicate degradability AND Brand. Achieve material and soil compatibility.

How did you hear about the Challenge?

  • Someone in my network (word of mouth)
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Labeling standards for biomaterials can be very complex for the average consumer. Labels globally have yet to be standardized and only further confuse the consumer understanding of what can break down in the soil, in a municipal compost facility, or in a backyard compost pile.


Take a look at what is allowed in an NYC composting bin. Nowhere does it list compostable straws, to-go containers or drinking cups. A compostable iced-coffee cup looks identical to the standard cold cup. These biobased, non-toxic products are twinning with their traditional plastic brethren. It is asking too much of consumers to be able to distinguish these materials in the instant that it takes to toss a bit of waste in the proper bin.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kevin Mcmunn

Like what you are doing, looking at a much deeper level, into to what at first seems like a simple problem. I am thinking that the incremental improvements of the past came about, mostly because we always went for the low hanging fruit. Cheers. Kevin

Photo of Megan Valanidas

Thanks, Kevin! I like your flat pack concept :)

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