Innovation Research and Design



Global Sustainability Research and Innovation Development

How sustainable is Bhar ?

This design project reveals an unsustainable deal between “no plastic” and “zero waste” made by the current railway minister from India in November 2020.

Railway minister Piyush Goyal attempts to avoid large masses of plastic waste from discarded tea cups at all railway stations in the country. He wants to simply replace the synthetic material with in India traditional terracotta.


This project shows the initiative that “cleaning the environment is not about changing the nature of waste nor making impulsive compromises”. It takes a close look at the requirements of holistic and smart solutions and highlights the opportunities and risks that can arise within sustainability approaches.

Bhar [baːɐ̯]

Bhar is a disposable tea cup made of terracotta, which is a century-old, traditional good from India.

The name "Bhar" is used in the centre of the research in West Bengal whereas the nationally common used term is "Kulhad" or "Kulhar".

The terracotta cups have gradually given way to polystyrene and coated paper cups for their higher convenience carrying in bulk and their lower prices.

Project challenge

Promoting the prevention of all kinds of waste ...

... through critically understanding Bhar's sustainability competencies and proposing a holistic sustainable concept avoiding plastic and terracotta waste.


How sustainable is Bhar?


The design research critically explores the ability of the disposable cup, made from the natural material terracotta and called Bhar, to be a valuable alternative to plastic cups. It focuses on misleading facts and knowledge by comprehensively defining Bhar’s impacts on the Indian socio-culture and environment.

Product life cycle in Kolkata, 2019

The teacup is manufactured since many generations and has a long history in the Indian culture. It is made by hand from the native material terracotta, after drying in the sun for half a day, and is fired in an open fire at a temperature of up to 800 degrees Celsius. The potters are proud members of potter families which mostly produce Bhar since many generations. In average, one potter manufactures around 3000 Bhars which are delivered to local vendors on a daily base.


Bhar is used as a disposable cup for 30 or 50 ml of chai.  After use, the cups are thrown into dustbins next to the tea stall, which are cleaned once or twice a day by official street sweepers.

The belief in the cycle of life from the raw clay into the low-fired terracotta is that one takes a piece from earth and gives it back after use. The heritage assigns the natural, brittle terracotta to be a biodegradable resource which decomposes into soil.


Maneka Ghandi is a politician who speaks against the political decision to replace plastic cups with

Bhars and who highlights the ecological risks of the disposable cup in her article for the magazine Outlook India. Her rational opinion is that finally the production of Bhars will damage the soil, pollute the air, and destroy surrounding trees.

Design approach: extending life cycle  by introducing a circular economy

Extending the life cycle of Bhar can mean cleaning and reusing the cup or processing its material into a new resource. Recycled low-fired terracotta can be returned to the production of clay cups or used for innovative design projects and opportunities.

Reusing or recycling the tea cups include hygienic challenges but impact the current behaviour of the users and their relationship to waste.

Besides an advanced circular economy it needs joint forces to implement the idea in India. An elaborated service map visualises the necessity of creating a team of guiding institutions like political authorities to introduce Bhar as a sustainable solution but focussing on preserving the cup's traditional craftsmanship.

All graphics are developed and designed by Hanne Viehmann. All rights reserved.

Feedback Loop and Service Map are developed according to methods by The Circular Design Guide,

A new material that can be used to increase the quantity of the raw material clay or for new design ideas.

Experiments with the ceramic powder revealed unique patterns and textures which embrace a beautiful element of chance. Each item includes an individual character according to the clay’s features, the grinding degree and the ratio of the mixed materials.

As a glaze or as a blend, fired at a 1240 degrees Celsius, created these fortuitous gradients.

Design: it puts Bhar in a new light and showcases the clay cup as a traditional basis for trend-oriented products.


Research: general information about Bhar led to the current plan of the politicians to exchange back the tradition. The first attempts failed, so I started to research further. I went to Kolkata to do surveys, interviews and observations in a place where the cup still has strong meaning.

Artistic approach: cooperation with photographer Armitava Saha to capture the status quo of the cup and all its characteristics

Craft and material: interviews with local potters who are part of the families producing Bhar. Conversation and collaboration with Swapan Jana, professor at the Government College of Arts in the ceramics department. I specialist in ceramics, slip casting, in my Bachelor programmes and brought already an understanding of the material and its properties. Material experiments with Bhars from Kolkata in the ceramic workshop of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Design of a tea cup and a tumbler made of the ceramic composite 60 per cent white slip and 40 per cent powdered cups / 100 per cent white slip with a 100 per cent powdered cup engobe (fired at a temperature of 1240 degrees Celsius).

Product culture: surveys and conversations with tea drinkers from Kolkata and international. Workshop with a sommelier to recognise the specialty of the cup's unique taste. The design of the reusable cup and tumbler are based on the shape of the original. The final designs are made according the needs of the Western market and related to the current trends in India.

Strategic approach: visualising the current state of the cup's life cycle as well its impact on "People", "Planet", the user and the product itself in comparison to sustainable alternatives like reusing, recycling, exchanging or globally exporting Bhar. A new developed diagram that characterises the cup in the four areas and shows five levels from an unsustainable to a sustainable product according to the requirements by the SDGs. Comparing the concepts presented a clear strategy to focus on recycling the waste material.

© All rights reserved, Hanne Viehmann 2021, Impressum