India's Train Stations Swap Plastic Cups for Clay in Effort to Reduce Plastic

It's a return to the traditional way of serving tea.

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small clay cup used for chai
A small clay cup, or 'kulhad', for tea is set to become the norm in India's train stations.

Akshansh Dixit / Getty Images

The government of India has announced that it will replace the single-use plastic cups used for tea in 7,000 train stations around the country with traditional clay cups called kulhads. This will reduce the amount of waste discarded every day, thus helping further the government's goal of making India free from single-use plastics, and it will provide much-needed employment to two million potters.

Prior to COVID-19, around 23 million people traveled on India's trains daily, many purchasing a cup of sweet, spicy, milky chai at some point. This created enormous amounts of waste, since the plastic cups typically used for tea are flimsy, cheap, and disposable. Switching to kulhads is a return to the past, when simple handleless cups were commonplace. Because the cups are unglazed and unpainted, they are fully biodegradable and can be tossed onto the ground to break down after use.

Jaya Jaitly is a politician and handicrafts expert who has advocated since the early 1990s for clay cups to be reintroduced in train stations. She explained to Treehugger that employing potters to provide these cups is a way to support them at a time when "heavy mechanization and new Internet technologies do not create jobs for them." She went on:

"Clay cups in India have always been one-time use only ... a tradition of old societies that ensured practices kept employment alive. 'Built-in obsolescence' [is something] that big companies use to keep selling new technological developments to keep sales going. Here it's for profit, but traditional agrarian societies always cared for community benefit."

The Guardian reports that a potter's average monthly income will increase from 2,500 rupees (US$34) to 10,000 rupees (US$135) a month. The government is distributing electric wheels to those who do not have them and funding a switch from wood- to gas-fueled kilns in villages that already have gas hookups for cooking. Jaitly said this will reduce smoke pollution. Water-side areas for sourcing clay will be marked off by the government to prevent any further developments that could hinder the potters' ability to access it.

Jaitly said that one reason why earlier efforts to reintroduce kulhads failed was because the government was unwilling to accept non-standardized sizes and shapes of cups. This time around they will have to accept it because the handmade pieces cannot possibly be identical, particularly with production being so decentralized. Variation in appearance is a small price to pay for the environmental benefits:

"With an increased awareness of climate change and disastrous ... effects of the use of plastic, the traditional and more natural ways must be embraced as the new modern if the planet has to survive."

This is happy, hopeful news from India, a country that has long struggled to deal with plastic waste, partly because of its huge population and because of inadequate waste disposal infrastructure across vast rural regions. This initiative is an excellent example of getting at the root cause of a problem and fixing it, rather than just trying to clean up the mess afterward. To use the bathtub metaphor that's commonly referenced when talking about plastic pollution, this is the equivalent of turning off the plastic-producing tap, instead of wasting time trying to mop up the overflow, wishing it would go away.

It also goes to show how returning to simpler, more traditional ways of life can sometimes be the best solution to a problem. It remains to be seen how smoothly the switch from plastic to clay goes, but it seems that enough Indians remember the days of sipping tea from clay cups for it to feel normal. From The Guardian: "Many Indians have similar memories of standing on a railway platform in the winter, hands cupped around a kulhad of hot steaming tea which, many swear, tastes better because of the earthy aroma imparted by the clay."

It sounds delicious. If only this could become the norm everywhere.

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