Terracotta Cups of India losing to plastic cups

In India, tea is one great sip of refreshment at home or when on move. If you visit any Indian city, suburb or even village the second shanty shop by the road is a tea stall that caters to thirsty passers-by serving steaming cups of tea. In a railway journey, on each station where the train halts, your window will be adorned by the eager face of a tea vendor at any time of the day. For such a populous country and such tea fetish, tea is big business in India.

Traditionally these ‘on-the-go’ tea servings used to come in terracotta cups in India. Like tea, these ‘burnt-earth’ cups used to be big business too. It supported local potters as a decent business with little or no mechanisation, low investment and it flourished with a lot of artistry. Terracotta cups are good insulators to hold hot fluids and most importantly they are bio-degradable and therefore eco-friendly.

However, this indigenious and eco-friendly craft of terracotta cups is losing steadily to plastic cups due to economic reasons in India. As ever, this economics is blatantly shortsighted and fails to include the cost of environmental hazards of plastics in general and recycling costs in particular.While a terracotta cup, left to nature will go back to its elements in a couple of months, plastic cups can remain there for thousands of years and its sad to see these plastic cups even in Himalayan heights of 18,000 ft.

Between 2004 and 2009, Indian Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav tried to champion the terracotta cups in railway journeys – a rare act of environmental wisdom that was received with bemused incredulity by Indian elites. Unsupported sources say that Railway Board objected to the decision on technical grounds. Interestingly both tea cups – terracotta and plastic litter the permanent way when discarded but the later outlives the former by many times.

While terracotta plates, pots and cooking utensils are still in use in India, particularly in areas where poverty is rampant, it might be wrong to associate the craft and practice of terracotta with backwardness. As a technology this is sound, less resource demanding and very recyclable. Aesthetically even a small terracotta cup will beat a plastic, paper or Styrofoam cup hands down. However it has the disadvantage that like paper cups it cannot be preprocessed to contain advert on its body. They are somewhat tricky for disposal as well. But then, we are used to see landscapes filled with discarded plastics too.

The slow but inevitable ingression of plastic disposables is one sad consequence of ‘bland’ economics that does not consider ecological costs. There had not been enough entrepreneurship to give the terracotta craft a technological support and that marks the end of a local craft.

If you come to India and wish to take a dip in local culture, please insist for a terracotta cup – as long as it is still there.

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All opinions are solely those of the author. Reader's discretion necessary for using any of the contents of this website. (c) Pabitra Mukhopadhyay 2011
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