Dunkin’ Donuts to eliminate foam cups worldwide by 2020

Next up to eliminate expanded polystyrene (EPS) drink cups from its chain of fast-food restaurants is Dunkin’ Donuts. The company will eliminate all EPS foam cups in its global supply chain beginning this spring with a targeted completion date of 2020.

Duncan Donuts image by m01229/flickr
Image courtesy m01229/flickr.

In U.S. restaurants, Dunkin’ Donuts will replace the foam cup with a new, double-walled paper cup. The majority of its restaurants in international markets are currently using paper cups, and the brand will work with its franchisees to eliminate foam cups from remaining international markets by the 2020 goal, said the company’s information.

Behind the effort to eliminate EPS foam cups was—you guessed it—As You Sow, an advocacy group that goes after plastics with a vengeance. It started a campaign several years ago to get Dunkin’ Donuts to replace EPS foam cups with another material, “as part of a larger dialogue on recycling beverage cups at its restaurant locations,” said a release from As You Sow.

As You Sow also noted, however, that it was surprised that Dunkin’ chose paper, as the company previously indicated that it “was leaning toward a polypropylene plastic cup as ‘currently the best available alternative to foam’ and [was] already using polypropylene in areas that had banned foam.”

For recycling purposes, the PP cups would have been a good choice. Even with double-walled paper, hot coffee might make the cup too hot to handle. Many restaurant chains that have switched to paper cups also must use a paperboard sleeve to protect customers’ hands from the heat. I’m thinking of the extra energy and the tremendous amount of water it takes to make paper cups and the paperboard sleeves, and I wonder just how much research Dunkin’ did before making this decision.

In March 2014, Good Start Packaging performed tests on single- and double-wall paper cups to see if they had the same insulative value of foam. Ken Jacobus, CEO of Good Start Packaging, noted that double-walled cups are made by manufacturing two paper walls with an insulating air pocket between them. “Some manufacturers have claimed using a double-walled cup avoids the need for a sleeve and keeps drinks hotter longer.” Because the double-walled cups cost about $0.06 more than a regular cup, Jacobus wanted to make sure that the value of the double-wall cup was worth the cost. If companies need to add a sleeve in addition to the double-wall cup, that adds another $0.05 to the cost.

Good Start performed a laboratory experiment using two cups. Cup 1 was a 12-oz. single-wall hot cup and lid and cup 2 was a 12-oz. double-wall hot cup and lid. Both were made by World Centric, Good Start’s brand, and the testers used a laser thermometer to measure the temperature of the cup’s outer wall and an “old fashioned liquid thermometer” to measure the temperature of the coffee. The coffee was served at 180° F.

After pouring in the coffee and letting it sit for a minute, the laser thermometer showed the outside temperature of cup #1 (single wall) to be 179° F, virtually the same as the inside. “This makes sense: Paper is a poor insulator,” said Jacobus. “This cup was very uncomfortable to hold; we found that a temperature of 150 to 160° is about the maximum temperature at which one could comfortably hold a cup of coffee without using a sleeve. The surface area of a sleeve on a cup is a comfortable 130° by comparison.”

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