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Low-tech design wins Betacup Challenge

Starbucks contest to design an alternative to paper coffee cups ends, and the winner isn't a cup at all--but rather a simple loyalty points system based on a chalkboard.

The promotional materials for Karma Cup, the chalkboard-based system that was declared the winner of the Betacup Challenge on Thursday.
The Betacup/Karma Cup design team

It turns out that the winner of the Starbucks-sponsored Betacup Challenge, a design competition aiming to solve the problem of the billions of disposable coffee cups discarded annually, isn't a cup at all. Rather, it's a chalkboard.

Called "Karma Cup," the jury-selected winning concept envisions a chalkboard at the counter of every Starbucks. Bring a reusable cup for your coffee, and you get to put a check mark on the chalkboard. Every 10 check marks, the next person to come in with a reusable cup gets his or her coffee on the house. "Think of it as one big rewards card for all of us," the design team explained in their entry materials. It's an astonishingly simple and low-tech concept, especially in comparison to some of its Betacup brethren that envisioned inflatable mugs, coffee cups made out of specially-grown coconut hulls, cups with built-in barcodes or LCD screens to show how much they've been used, and elaborate recycling systems built specially for Starbucks cups.

The Karma Cup team will receive $10,000 from Starbucks as a prize; an additional $10,000 will be divided among the five entries that were voted the highest by the community in the online competition. There were also jury-picked runners-up, including the "Champion Cup," which uses a Web tie-in to count how many paper cups (and hence, trees) are being saved through the use of a reusable cup, and the "Band of Honor," a rubber band with a loyalty program barcode built into it that can be transferred from one reusable cup to another.

Starbucks has said that it aims to serve 100 percent of its coffee in recyclable or reusable cups by 2015. As for the Betacup, however, Starbucks is not required to acquire or implement the winning concept.

"We know we can't solve the disposable cup waste issue alone," said Jim Hanna, Starbucks' director of environmental impact, said in a release Thursday that announced the winner. "Consumers can play an important role by sharing creative ideas and spreading the word, as they've done with The Betacup. It's this kind of passion and enthusiasm that will help the reusable cup movement gain real momentum."