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Dunkin’ Donuts Dumps EPS Cups

Dunkin's new paper cups
The double-walled paper cups that have replaced the polystyrene foam (EPS) cups have a polyethylene liner that serves as a moisture barrier. The liner also makes them difficult, if not impossible, to recycle.

Moving along with its sustainability initiatives, Dunkin’ Donuts trumpeted its latest achievement in “serving both people and the planet responsibly” by announcing that 100% of its restaurants globally have transitioned from polystyrene foam (EPS) cups to paper cups. In Dunkin’s U.S. restaurants, the foam cups have been replaced by double-walled paper cups.

The new cups are made with paperboard that is certified to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative standard. Image courtesy Dunkin'.

The new cups, made with paperboard certified to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) standard, are currently used to serve all Dunkin’ hot beverages, including coffee, espresso drinks, tea, and hot chocolate in the United States. Dunkin’ said in its announcement that the new cups “maintain heat retention properties comparable to the prior foam cups, keeping beverages hot while keeping hands cool, without the need for a [paperboard] sleeve.”

An online article in FoodPrint addressing the replacement of EPS foam cups with paper cups, “The Massive Impact of Your Takeout Coffee Cup,” noted that while EPS has long been the “to-go choice” for coffee because it is cost-effective and retains heat, these cups have also taken 'heat' for their non-recyclability." However, noted FoodPrint, while paper cups might “seem like a better option . . . paper cannot hold liquid,” particularly hot liquid, without a polyethylene liner, “a plastic that functions as a moisture barrier.”

The PE liner makes the paper cup non-recyclable unless the lining is separated from the cup, something that is difficult, if not impossible, to do, and adds to the cost of recycling these cups. That is why, as many recycling reports note, paper cups are not accepted at paper recycling facilities. To hold up under cold liquids, makers of paper cups avoid the PE problem by lining the cups with wax, but that is oil-based, as well, something that sustainability initiatives fail to recognize.

FoodPrint notes that other types of plastic cups used for iced drinks are made from #5 polypropylene “that is not accepted in many curbside recycling programs. Some coffee shops, such as Spill the Beans in San Diego, have turned to PET for their iced drinks, as it is readily recyclable and can be deposited with curbside recyclables.

PlasticsToday questioned Dunkin’ about the type of lining used in the double-walled paper cups, and the company confirmed that polyethylene liner is used in the new cups.

Dunkin’ also noted in its announcement that the company is on track to be fully transitioned to recyclable hot coffee cup lids in its U.S. restaurants by the end of summer 2020. The new lids are made of #5 polypropylene (PP), that can be recycled in cities and towns that offer #5 recycling.

While plastic lids might be a good replacement for straws, FoodPrint cautions that these too are “difficult to recycle,” because they are also made from #5 PP and #6 polystyrene (PS).

By the end of 2020, all Dunkin’ Keurig K-Cup pods sold in-store and at grocery stores will also be made of #5 polypropylene and can be recycled, with the same caveat as the cup lids regarding the acceptance of PP.

It becomes increasingly evident that many consumer products companies clearly do not understand the science behind the materials of the packaging products they choose in their sustainability initiatives. Manufacturing paper and paper packaging requires heavy use of water resources, as well as energy. These companies also need to be careful about “greenwashing” claims — as Dunkin’ appears to be with regard to the use of polypropylene in its new lids.

No matter how “green” companies want to be, they just can’t get away from the benefits of plastic in their packaging.

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