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Karla Zens Headshot

Think Small: How Portability Rules the World

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As a green building pro, I'm always a bit queasy when I sit down with other sustainability professionals and someone breaks out the bottled waters, or even worse, we're confronted with a tower of styrofoam cups by the coffee urn. When the meeting takes place in San Francisco, the drinking vessels are likely to be compostable, recyclable at worst.

Fact is, it's still just more convenient to use disposable products.

Every year in the U.S. we throw away 58 billion paper cups. That number is underscored elegantly (yet, somehow, disgustingly) in this image by photographer Chris Jordan. Despite the best efforts of companies to reduce paper cup waste, it seems that we really just can't kick our paper cup habit. Starbucks served only 1.9 percent of total beverage sales in reusable containers last year, despite putting some serious muscle into trying to get more people on board with reusables. They were hoping to hit 25 percent adoption of reusables by 2015, and recently dropped that target to just 5 percent.

And here's the thing: I have a reusable travel mug that I adore. It's the color of the deep sea, and on particularly bleary mornings I can imagine a fearsome fish swimming from its glossy marine blue coating. It keeps my coffee hot, I can flip it upside down without it leaking, and I'm pretty sure it could stop a bullet. But it's just too bulky to carry around every day and it doesn't fit into any of my cute purses. If I have plans after work I inevitably leave my travel mug at the office, and it's the first thing to go when the suitcase won't shut before a vacation.

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So along with all the efforts to recycle coffee cups, compost them or even turn them into art, here's my idea. Make reusable cups more compact and convenient, so people will actually use them.

Portability. It's that simple.

Take mobile devices: they reinvented how we communicate, experience music and television, navigate a new city, and document our lives through photos and video. It's time to apply that concept to everything we do. If you still needed a suitcase to carry your cell phone -- not to mention schlep around a camera, GPS system, boombox and TV -- would mobile subscriptions have reached 87 percent worldwide adoption?

I've taken this portability obsession beyond idea phase, and launched Zip Cup, a turbocharged take on the collapsible cup you might remember from childhood. I updated the concept to include twist-lock sealing and a stylish design, and made it large enough for a full cup of coffee. It's available for pre-order on Indiegogo.

I have a vision that reusable cups, bags and bottles will rightfully take their place alongside keys, wallet and cell phone in our pockets, bags and purses. But to earn that prized position, we need to make it worth the hassle to consumers. That means minimizing the hassle to the point where it's basically negligible -- and that's where portability becomes paramount.

Tech companies have figured out that the key to consumer adoption is creating a path of least resistance. I challenge today's innovators to continue this maniacal focus on portability, so that terrific sustainable products make it off of the drawing board and into our pockets.

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