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A project by Hanne Viehmann | hanne.viehmann@network.rca.ac.uk


Story of bhar

The disposable cup made of clay

The global project about bhar is showcase of my developed sustainability design approach. It offered great opportunities to learn about a foreign culture and to elaborate sustainability relevant methods and a strategic tool to assess the level of sustainability of consumer goods.

Design approach

What are the sustainability competencies and future of the traditional clay cup, called bhar?


Environmental problems are caused by industrial production and consumption of single-use products, such as those made of plastic. In some parts of India, tea drinkers use a disposable cup made of the natural material low-fired clay. Indian ministers see the traditional cup as a national opportunity to circumvent these environmental problems and to comply with the sustainable development goals through replacing chai cups made of plastic and paper. They highlight the ceramic cup to ensure an environmentally friendly future, but also revive their own cultural heritage: a wonderful idea with high expectations.


Kolkata is one of the places in Western India holding on to the tradition of making clay cups and drinking their thick sweet tea served in a “bhar” [Bengali for kulhad, kulhar]. I travelled to Kolkata to do an on-side research and to clarify inconsistencies as well to discover the cup's design values.


Field research supported by photographer Amitava Saha from Kolkata.

collecting and organising data

bhar — Design observation

design values

A consumer good includes different perspectives which are interesting to analyse during the design process to improve or redesign the product. To tackle the challenges of a sustainable design, the first applied method was the definition of design values to describe the product in an abstract and generalised manner. These values are derived from the six product categories, resource, disposal, design, production, distribution, and consumption. The design values are natural material, biodegradability, efficient design, traditional craft, cultural heritage, and sensorial aesthetics. The definition of these values structured the research and arranged to untangle each value by relevant methods and resulting in a different set of quantitative and qualitative data.

organising the research by methods and data

— Each design value discovered cultural key features of the cup


cultural heritage


     • interviews with potters and tea vendors

     • consumer surveys

     • photo observation in Kolkata

bhar [Bengali]


Kolkata is one of the places holding on to the tradition drinking their thick sweet tea out of the disposable, ceramic cup.


The traditions around bhar have not been changed but retail adjusted to an expanding market which included different sizes of cups and equivalent varying materials, plastic and paper.


natural material


     • product life-cycle

     • material flow map

     • material value charts: clay, paper and plastic



Potters in Kolkata purchase the raw material from closed-by wetlands and river beds.


Important to consider is that some potters belief in the religious aspect of the resource, originally gained from

the holy Ganges river.




     • chemical analysis

     • decomposition analysis



Low-fired clay turns into a ceramic material which does not decay back into mud but fine sand.


A special feature of the cup is its purpose to be thrown into the nature after use. In comparison to plastic and paper, it is less harmful to the surrounding but definitely NOT not harmful. Indian scientists discovered a negative impact on the agricultural soil.


traditional craft


     • cost-benefit chart

     • supply chain diagram

     • stakeholder map

     • political hierarchy chart

making bhar


The entire process from supplying the resource until consuming are designed most simple and with a few stakes. They have not been developed since many generations of potters but needed to adjust to political decisions.


Potters used to learn the craft around the age of 12 from their fathers and grandfathers.


efficient design


     • description of the design features

     • production process map

     • footprint calculation

8 Seconds


The cup is produced in three different sizes, 50, 75 and 100 ml. The small cup is turned within 8 seconds which highlights an efficient shape and its simplicity in details. Bhar's attractive parts are this simplicity as well as natural inclusions, organic flaws and finger prints of the makers which define an original beauty.


sensorial aesthetics


     • customer journey map

     • cup tasting with a sommelier

     • colour chart

     • trend analysis

sweet and earthen flavours


The traditions of bhar are a great example of the Indian culture. Consumption in India considers the nature in relation to the spiritual relationship of man to nature and the urge to economize materials and expenses.

Bhar is meant to be thrown away after use because of hygienic reasons and the spiritual opinion closing the circle of life when giving the cup back to nature.

The research discovered that the consumer good bhar includes many engaging design values which can be related to a certain set of data. Natural material is one of the 6 design values and formed out of the product category “resource”. The cup is made of the natural material clay and low-fired in a traditional oven heated with a bun fire. Potters in Kolkata purchase their clay from closed-by wetlands and river beds. Interesting to consider is that some potters believe in the religious aspect of the resource, originally gained from the holy Ganges river.


sustainability competencies

People | planet | profit | product


The current problem is that bhar is being launched as the sustainable solution to avoid plastic waste in India without questioning the product culture and considering its actual impact. What does it mean for the 4 Ps, including the 36 sustainability features, if the cup is launched as an alternative for disposable cups made of plastic and paper?


Product life-cycle and emerging sustainability opportunities and barriers


What does it mean for the 4 Ps, including the 36 sustainability features, if the cup is launched as an alternative for disposable cups made of plastic and paper?





All visualised data and insights are combined in the Sustainability Catalogue.

If you are interested, please send an email to hanne.viehmann@network.rca.ac.uk

Making bhars sustainable is the most intricate task and needs to be approached on a bigger scale, including cooperation with local designers and

stakeholders by sharing the findings in the Sustainability Catalogue with all its perspectives and critique. Translated into a general sustainability attitude, it seems important to share outcomes and to co-work with locals for a sustainable environment and culture. This also includes global designers who are not developing for the Indian market but produce with Indian resources and/or in India.