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A product and system based solution that incentivises paper pulp recycling, through the creation of a low-cost building material.

Photo of Ashley Adami
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Idea Title

CupCrete. Better systems, better homes

Idea Summary

CupCrete Better systems, better homes Recycled PLA fibre cup based cement bricks to service the affordable housing industry in South Africa and abroad. A low-cost solution based on existing proc

Company / Organization Name (if applicable)

Studio Two.

Website (if applicable)


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

CupCrete prototype

When identifying the key issues surrounding existing recycling processes we identified that effectively separating the PLA or PET coating from the paper cup is virtually impossible. Commercial pulp recycling facilities are not incentivised to separate this single-use item back into it’s the two materials. Not only is it difficult, the value of the remaining materials is extremely low as the paper is ‘contaminated’ with plastic meaning that it cannot be effectively recycled into paper and other paper pulp products. Paper pulp manufacturers are not incentivised to recycle paper cups, resulting in only 1 in every 400 cups being recycled or composted. 

Incentivising the recycling of paper pulp that does not aim to remove the PLA coating, but rather use the ‘contaminated’ material to create a secondary product that has financial, social and environmental benefits. Through rigorous research and a series of prototypes, it became evident that the inclusion of the plastic composite serves as an effective aggregate that both binds and strengthens the material when compressed and molded.

The commercially used PLA single-use fibre cups are so robust, in order to pass international health and safety regulations, that they can only be composted at commercial composting facilities. Commercial facilities take an average of 180 days to compost the cups where as if you were to throw it on the ground, it would take an average of 50 years to fully break down. 


Coffee shops and fast food chains, purchase existing recyclable single-use fibre cups as usual. The customer then purchases the product and disposes of it into demarcated bins provided within the coffee shops. Alternatively customers can throw their used cups into the standard recycle bins around the city. Recycling facilities then collect the used cups from designated stores like Starbucks and McDonalds, and deliver them to existing sorting facilities. 

CupCrete allows the lid and cup to be ground up together to form a concrete aggregate, meaning that there needs to be no separation or sorting of cup materials. This aspect benefits the sorting facilities as well as the consumer by simplifying a complex and often confusing world of what can and can’t be recycled/composted. Not only can the lid and cup be ground up together but PLA and PET cups can all be mixed in together to form a stronger aggregate.

The pulp is then dried and sold to CupCrete manufacturers. Manufacturers mix the paper pulp with cement to create CupCrete.  Manufacturers then compress the ‘CupCrete’ mix into standard brick molds, commonly used for low-cost housing.

The final ‘CupCrete’ bricks are then sold to low-cost housing developers in South Africa and abroad for affordable housing solutions as well as sold to independent distributors such as hardware stores and local distributors in townships. These are then sold directly to consumers living in shacks and informal dwellings. Alternatively CupCrete Mix and cement can be sold as a premix for customers to mold on site. 

Through the creation of CupCrete bricks, we hope to provide an eco-friendly and affordable housing material to aid the housing crisis currently being experienced in South Africa. By adding value to the waste cups and lids, we would be creating an opportunity for informal pickers to earn extra income by incentivising them to remove cups and lids from the waste system. 


This solution addresses which of the following:

  • Hot / Cold Fiber Cup
  • Cup Lids
  • Cup Liner
  • All of the Above
  • Alternative Delivery System

How is your concept recoverable?

CREATING A RECOVERABLE PRODUCT AT ITS HIGHEST VALUE. CupCrete bricks effectively incentivise commercial recycling facilities and local stakeholders like informal pickers to collect and recycle existing PLA and PET based single use fibre cups. Through creating a secondary product with commercial value, recycling facilities are incentivised to pulp this material independently from other recycled products, without having to separate the plastic lining. This material is then sold to the building industry which is compressed and mixed with concrete to create ‘CupCrete’. Inspired by, Papercrete a construction material consisting of pulped paper fibre and cement. Other aggregates such as shredded plastic can also be included. First identified in the late 1920’s and revived in the 1980’s this material offers an efficient and cost effective use for waste materials.

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

With 7.5 million individuals living in townships, Cupcrete offers people the opportunity to purchase materials to build their homes. The PLA in CupCrete bricks acts as an effective insulator and temperature regulator. Informal pickers collect 80% of paper recycling in SA and have save municipalities over 4 million in landfill space. CupCrete increases the financial value of single-use fibre cups, contributing to growth within the informal collection sector.

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

When developing this solution, we used South Africa as it is a resource scarce with few recycling facilities, however we did take global systems into account in order to accommodate multiple urban landscapes. By adopting a systems based approach that works with existing single use take away cups, our solution can successfully be implemented on a global scale.

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

Although Cupcrete is designed for a South African context, it is simple enough to be adapted to suit any other context worldwide. The benefit of the system is that it only changes the end life cycle of a fibre cup by adding value to it. The part of the system involving the coffee consumer remains the same, in order to make Cupcrete as easily implementable as possible. As a system redesign, Cupcrete aims to make the existing system work for the consumer by creating a second life for a waste product. Through extensive research and past designs we have learnt that consumer behaviour is notoriously difficult to change, meaning that the issue is systems based.

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?

One of the largest challenges in our solution is implementation into the market and scalability of product. Funding is needed for further user testing and pilot projects with stakeholders that will utilise the product. Designated recycling bins would need to be implemented into franchise chains in order to collect large quantities of used coffee cups.

Mentorship Needs (please select up to 3)

  • Business Model Development
  • Supply Chain
  • Waste and Infrastructure
  • Growth and Scaling
  • Legal
  • Fundraising / Finance

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

We are a two women team of industrial designers passionate about creating positive global impact. Founders of a PLA based coffee cup that merges lid and base through folding mechanisms. We have worked in design and the startup industry.

In what city are you located?

Cape Town.

In what country are you located?

South Africa .

What is your legal / organizational structure? (if applicable)


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

Access to programs with industry professionals provides knowledge-sharing opportunities that we do not have access to in SA. Knowledge obtained directly enriches South Africa and bridges the gap across continents. Funding will be used to further develop our concept through the creation of a low-cost house in collaboration with local stakeholders and local government. Funding will allow CupCrete to enter the market, ensuring long-term sustainability through localised research and user testing.

How did you hear about the Challenge?

  • OpenIDEO announcement email


Join the conversation:

Photo of Koldun Victor

An ordinary cardboard cup breaks down in the natural environment roughly in a year or thereabout. Approximately how the fallen leaves does, consisting of the same cellulose. In order for the new material for the production of cups to become a cost effective replacement of cardboard, it should decompose order faster, somewhere in a month, maybe two or three. This is at an average temperature of 15 degrees Celsius (according to NASA). But when we pour water near a boiling point, at a temperature of 95 degrees, into such cup , according to the rule of Svante August Arrhenius, all the chemical processes in it, including the self-decay of complex molecules, respectively, accelerate. The minimum acceleration will be somewhere 250 times, and the maximum will be about 65,000 times. That is, for a disposable cup that has been filled for at least an hour, and this is a real situation somewhere on a picnic, there is all the chances to pour out their content on the table at best , at worst, on himself or his electronic devices. Even if this cup was made a few days before that and was stored in a stock in perfect conditions.
Therefore, the question arises - how do you deal with such issue?

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