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Let’s Raise a Glass to Toby Keith, the Red Solo Cup, and Draft

You know you’re an engineer if you praise the draft in the red Solo cup, and you’re talking about its sloped design, not the contents.

John Spevacek

February 7, 2024

3 Min Read
Toby Keith holding a red Solo cup
Toby Keith and Kane Brown at the 2019 CMT Music Awards in Nashville.Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic via Getty Images

Reports over the death of country music star Toby Keith almost always mention one of his most famous — and silliest — songs: “Red Solo Cup.” Released in 2011, the song praises the beverage cup that is so common at large gatherings with large amounts of alcoholic drinks. The lyrics are mostly simple words with some longer ones thrown in to provide a false sense of sophistication. They include such high-brow couplets as:

Now red Solo cup is the best receptacle

for barbecues, tailgates, fairs, and festivals

Poetry that would bring a tear to the Bard’s eyes.

Drinking local before it was a thing

Beside consuming my share of beer in these cups, I had a closer connection to the “receptacles.” I went to grad school at the University of Illinois, located in the cities of Urbana and Champaign. Like many of my fellow students, we would comment about how much we loved the two cities, and how they would be a great place to stay and raise a family after we were done with school. The only wrinkle in that plan was the job opportunities, which were extremely limited. Beyond the university, the largest employers for engineering types were the Kraft Foods factory (which always had a funky stink surrounding it) and the Solo cup factory. I can’t confirm that this site was the only one manufacturing red Solo cups, but they were certainly made there. This, of course, means we were drinking local before everyone else did.

While researching this article, I found that the Solo factory was scheduled to close at the end of 2023. The company had been acquired by a competitor (Dart Container) in 2012 and the factory was closed as part of the consolidations that inevitably follow. So, in hindsight, not sticking around town was probably for the best. (Instead, I went to work for Hercules, which is no longer in business at all. That’s a great plan B you had there, John.)

There are lots of knockoff imitators, but Solo cups are made of polystyrene and come in multiple colors. Red is the one that has really captured the collective consciousness and become ubiquitous at large parties.

Using the red Solo cup as a teaching aid

I use red Solo cups for demonstrations in the CAD classes that I teach, as they are a nice example of an object with draft. (Hey! I’m talking about the sloped walls, not the liquid in the cup.) This leads to a discussion of why objects will have a draft, and why designers need to be concerned about the manufacturability of their designs. While draft has great benefits to the injection molding process, sometimes draft just looks nice.

With the Solo cup, however, adding draft is the “natural” choice. Hold your hand in a relaxed position and look at the curl of your fingers. The index finger curls the least and the pinkie the most, so that a cup with a draft wall will fit your hand nicer than one without. This can be overdone, and in fact, other cups made by Solo have overdone it. Those conical paper cups that are near water fountains are a great example. They have too much draft and really don’t fit a hand well. You’re always holding it just near the top instead of its entire length.

Toby Keith is gone, but the red Solo cup and his song will still be with us. My mind still reels from all of this. A mega-hit song about a single-use plastic. How is that possible?

PS: You may also be interested in this article from 2022: Throwback Thursday: When a Red Plastic Solo Cup Was Celebrated.

About the Author(s)

John Spevacek

Born and raised in Minnesota, John Spevacek earned a B.ChE. from the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities) and a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois (Urbana). He worked in the plastics industry for 25 years for several companies, large and small, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

He began teaching so that he could share his experiences and knowledge with others. He and his wife became fed up with Minnesota winters and moved south shortly after this career change. Spevacek currently is an assistant professor of engineering at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, NC.

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