During the Bronze Age, elite members of the Minoan civilization flaunted their prosperity by throwing large, lavish parties. To make the clean-up process easier, these ancients relied on a convenience familiar to many of us today: disposable cups.
One such vessel, made out of clay on the island of Crete some 3,500 years ago, is now on view at the British Museum in London as part of a new display exploring the long and complicated history of humans’ relationship with trash.
“People may be very surprised to know that disposable, single-use cups are not the invention of our modern consumerist society, but in fact can be traced back thousands of years,” says Julia Farley, co-curator of “Disposable? Rubbish and Us,” in a statement. “Three and a half thousand years ago, the Minoans were using them for a very similar reason to us today: to serve drinks at parties.”
The ancient, handleless cup isn’t very pretty. According to Hannah Knowles of the Washington Post, it’s rough and covered in fingerprints, suggesting it was likely made in a rush. Thousands of similar items have been found in large concentrations across Crete, leading experts to suspect the objects were discarded in large numbers after being used once to hold wine at feasts.
Clay in the ancient world was abundant, affordable and easy to mold, making it a suitable material for disposable objects. At the British Museum, the Minoan vessel is on view alongside a waxed paper cup commissioned by Air India during the 1990s for serving drinks on flights and at airports. The juxtaposition, says Farley, highlights humans’ long-standing predilection for cheap products that can mitigate cumbersome tasks like washing up.
“In one way, it shows this universal desire for convenience,” she tells Knowles. “But today, we’re making more than 300 billion disposable paper cups every year as a species. It’s so completely different in terms of the scale.”
The mass consumption of single-use items has indeed become a matter of urgent environmental concern in recent years—particularly when those items are made out of plastic, a relatively modern invention. Our planet is choking on plastic; each year, we produce around 340 million tons of plastic products, which leach toxic chemicals into groundwater, flood into the ocean and endanger wildlife. The material doesn't biodegrade quickly, instead breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. The United Nations has called single-use plastics “one of the biggest environmental scourges of our time,” and member states agreed earlier this year to curb the use of items like disposable bags, cups, cutlery and straws.
In the British Museum display, the nature of today’s plastic pollution problem is demonstrated through a contemporary fishing basket made from plastic trash that washed up on a beach in Guam. Created by artist Anthony Guerrero, the object comments on the alarming amount of plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean while also offering “a creative and practical re-purposing of waste material,” according to the museum.
The display is rounded out by a selection of contemporary photographs demonstrating the extent of plastic pollution across the Pacific. The curators of “Disposable?” hope museum visitors will be prompted to reflect on the history of our engagement with disposables, including how those interactions have stayed the same, how they have changed and how they need to shift in the future to ensure the health of the planet.
“Humans have always produced rubbish, and we always will,” Farley tells Knowles, “and I don’t think we gain by making individuals feel guilty about producing rubbish. But it’s important for us to think about how as a species we’re going to move forward in a more sustainable way.”
“Disposable? Rubbish and Us” is on view at the British Museum in London through February 23, 2020.