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Foam is Out: The Search for a Greener Hot Cup

In recent years, the fast food industry, and the restaurant industry as a whole, have come under scrutiny for their use of polystyrene foam beverage containers. Polystyrene foam, commonly known as “Styrofoam,” is a synthetic material that is lightweight, inexpensive to produce, and provides good insulation for products like coffee. The problem is that polystyrene is non-biodegradable and non-recyclable. It is essentially the worst kind of garbage, collecting in landfills without ever breaking down.

According to its website, Dunkin’ Donuts sells more than 1.7 billion cups of hot and cold coffee every year. If half of these are sold in foam containers, there are about 850 million Dunkin’ Donuts foam cups being deposited into landfills every year.

Environmental advocates have encouraged restaurants like Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s to switch all of their containers from foam to the more easy to recycle and biodegradable option of paper. Paper is not conventionally viewed as environmentally friendly and is even downplayed in an increasingly technological world. But the fact of the matter is that paper is a plant-based material and, when produced properly and handled responsibly, is recyclable and sustainable.

Both McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts are attempting, independently, to create a paper cup that lives up to the insulating standard of polystyrene. Double-walled paper cups have been sampled with little success, and paper-plastic hybrid cups have also been tested. Paper cups currently carry a non-recyclable plastic liner to prevent sogginess. Solutions to appease both the beverage needs of chains and environmental concerns are still being sought but, unfortunately, economic concerns still are at the forefront of the discussion.

Dunkin’ Donuts says they will not be completely satisfied until their cups are not only recyclable, but are actually being recycled — a difficult goal to measure.

The time has come when consumers are realizing the negative effects of polystyrene foam beverage containers and are demanding a more sustainable alternative. Competing companies such as Starbucks have made it a part of their corporate mission to reduce landfill waste by using only paper cups, most of which have 10% post-consumer recycled content. Most companies across the board are also now selling reusable cups, and many provide incentives such as free or discounted coffee for using them. These efforts serve to further spotlight Dunkin’ Donuts’ lack of social responsibility with its continued production and use of foam cups.

Large, influential companies are expected to be active participants — if not the driving force — in the most pressing social and environmental issues. According to the 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study, “Corporate social responsibility is no longer an option.” By disregarding this consumer demand, they risk more than their reputation.

If Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s, along with others using polystyrene, want to continue to please their multitude of customers and climb aboard the sustainability train, the time to act is now. For a nation that runs on Dunkin’, it is not unreasonable to ask that they serve their fuel in containers that make both their customers and the Earth happy.

It is clear that these franchises are in need of research and development, and this may be the perfect opportunity for sustainable paper manufacturers with expertise and technology to get their foot in the door.