‘Disposable’ Minoan wine cups reveal human history of waste

A new exhibition on waste at the British Museum will feature ‘disposable’ wine cups from the Minoan civilisation as an example of humanity’s long history of single use items – and the impact of that legacy today.

The 3,500 year-old clay cups have been found in large quantities across Minoan sites on Crete and the other Cycladean islands they inhabited in the Bronze Age.

They were produced for religious feasts and festivals and parties at royal palaces and were a symbol of wealth and luxury due to their being made for just one occasion.

They show that mankind has made items for sheer convenience for thousands of years but their part of the new exhibition, ‘Rubbish and US’ at the British Museum in London sets them against things such as the modern throwaway item – the waxed paper coffee cup.

Julia Farey, curator at the museum, said: “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.”

The point of the exhibition, she continued, was to make people confront the reality of rubbish and the impact it has, especially the waste our own societies are producing.

“Human beings have always produced rubbish,” said Farey. “Making some rubbish is an unavoidable by-product of being human. We are tool-using animals. We wear clothes. Nothing lasts forever. It’s in the very nature of our existence that we make rubbish.

“This is a sobering message about scale and consumption and I think we need to find that balance, which humans have never been very good at finding.

“We have thousands of these Minoan, disposable cups and that’s a lot. But today we are making over 300 billion papers cups globally every year. The Minoan civilisation is tiny compared to the global consumerist economy that we have now.

“Now we are doing what human beings have always done but we are doing it on an unprecedented scale with materials that are going to take hundreds, if not thousands of years, to biodegrade.”

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