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Six Years After Its Promise to Quit, Dunkin' Donuts Still Runs on Styrofoam

Back in 2010, in a corporate sustainability report, the behemoth coffee chain declared that getting rid of its foam cups was "the most prominent sustainability issue we must deal with."
September 26, 2016, 7:00pm
Photo via Flickr user mrjoro

Are we just missing something, or is the implementation of a new disposable cup by a massive corporation a task on par with putting a man on the moon, reanimating the mind of Marlon Brando in the body of a Furby, and achieving the two-state solution?

We ask because no matter how hard it tries, Dunkin' Donuts just can't seem to find a cup that's not made of Styrofoam for use in most of their 12,000 plus locations around the world. For the past six years, they've looked and looked… and looked and looked. But so far, nothing seems to have really peaked their fancy.


Is it actually that hard to find an alternate cup that doesn't destroy the environment but still somehow manages to do the impossible task of holding a liquid AND keeping it warm at the same time?


Back in 2010, in a corporate sustainability report, the behemoth coffee chain declared that getting rid of its foam cups was "the most prominent sustainability issue we must deal with." Those sound like fighting words to us, but since then, little if any progress has been made in actually getting rid of Styrofoam cups—or polypropylene, as the generic plastic is known—in their stores.

Then, in 2012, they announced a new goal: Foam would be out in two to three years. It didn't happen.

READ MORE: France Just Banned Plastic Cups and Cutlery

The latest word on Dunkin's website is that although they have examined "every commercially available material and tested both a double-walled paper cup and a #5 recyclable polypropylene cup in restaurants in the US," they simply could find nothing to their satisfaction.

Coffee is being served in cups that are kinder to the environment throughout the world, but Dunkin' Donuts simply cannot find a "suitable" alternative to the material they already use? Is anyone else thinking this must simply come down to cost?

Richard Young, the policy director for Sustainable Food Trust, certainly seems to think so. "We suspect this is because Styrofoam cups are cheaper than alternatives and, if that's the case, this illustrates a fundamental issue with the whole food system. We and future generations pay those costs in hidden ways through other taxes, health insurance, water charges, and the long term security of the food supply chain."


We thought cost must be the problem, but some sustainability advocates don't believe the switch would necessarily even cost the company a great deal of money. Danielle Nierenberg, the co-founder and president of Food Tank, told MUNCHIES, "I think that D&D is completely missing the boat when it comes to continuing to use Styrofoam cups. It's an easy fix that would make their customers happy and have very little impact on their bottom line."

READ MORE: This Company Is Turning Coffee Grounds into Coffee Cups

DD's latest plan, according to their website, is "to continue to explore additional materials as they become available over the next 12-18 months. We expect to be in a position to make a decision regarding an alternative cup and a timeline for the transition to a new cup by the end of 2015." Oh, wait a minute. We're almost three-quarters through 2016, aren't we?

Polystyrene is lousy for the environment, poses a health risk to the people who make the cups, and may account for 30 percent of the stuff piling up in our landfills. Some people might blame Dunkin' Donuts' failure to live up to its promise to transition away from Styrofoam on its franchise structure, but McDonald's—which is largely franchised—managed to switch to paper cups. Why can't Dunkin?

As Nierenberg points out, "If McDonald's can do it, so can they. I also think they're ignoring a trend among chains, like Panera Bread or Sweetgreen, of making sustainability part of their mission. Those chains and others are quickly gaining force in the fast casual space—they could gain a foothold among Millennials and young people who want to spend their money at restaurants they believe in."

READ MORE: The First Fully Recyclable Coffee Cups Are Being Trialled In the UK

It seems as if Dunkin' could certainly make the change if they actually wanted to. In locations, like Washington, DC, where the use of Styrofoam is now banned, Dunkin uses a plastic called polypropylene, which is much easier to recycle than polystyrene. Jim Schulman of the Building Materials Reuse Association told us, "As has been demonstrated here in the District of Columbia, there are enough alternatives on the market that businesses both large & small can cost-effectively comply with a ban on single-serving polystyrene foodware. Franchises can certainly do this if sole-proprietorship food truck vendors are doing it."

When MUNCHIES reached out to Dunkin' Donuts, their representative told us, in part: "Based on our efforts to date, we believe that an expanded recyclable polypropylene (#5 plastic) cup is currently the best available alternative to foam, However, this cup does not fully satisfy all our criteria for performance, environmental impact, and cost. Customer feedback has indicated that many are not satisfied with the lid on the new cup. In addition, this lid is made from High Impact Polystyrene (HIPS), which is not accepted in many municipal recycling programs and is also banned by many communities. Lastly, the cup and lid combination is significantly more expensive than our current polystyrene cup and lid set. As such, while we remain committed to finding a long-term recyclable alternative to the foam cup, we are not prepared to transition fully out of foam at this time."

Seems as though you've done plenty of research, Dunkin. Time to spend a little money and get with the program.