For many of us, stopping for coffee is part of our pre-work routine, something that our body views as a mandatory habit. It’s that moment when you order your latte with exact change in hand, that you realize you are truly addicted. But the caffeine dependence of our on-the-go society isn’t simply measured in pounds of coffee beans. Back in 1995, design historian Phil Patton wrote about our increasing reliance upon disposable coffee cup lids. Patton’s analysis of lids revealed the complexity with which these throw-away items are designed. ”Coffee lids are coinage of our speed-up society, we use about a billion and a half lids each year,” Patton comments. “If you look at them without touching or lifting, lids can seem as stately as sculpted plaster or marble.”
Though the plastic lid is associated with wasteful consumerism, several designers and institutions consider it to be a masterful, well executed design. Included in Patton’s collection is the Solo Traveler lid, designed to accommodate the drinker’s nose and lips. This now ubiquitous design was featured in Humble Masterpieces, the 2004 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that also featured such objects as the paperclip, the waffle cone, and M&Ms.
Yet as proposed by Nicola Twilley for The Atlantic, perhaps the reign of the plastic lid is coming to an end. When Starbucks partnered with Core77 to host a design contest aimed at reducing to-go cup waste, the surprising winner — Karma Cup — wasn’t an actual cup. Instead, Karma Cup is an incentive program designed to encourage reusable cups. While the program has not yet been implemented, perhaps it’s the first step toward making disposable coffee cup lids go the way of the dinosaurs.