(NECN: Peter Howe, Brookline, Mass.) This town is home to just five of the seemingly 5 million Dunkin’ Donuts franchises that line New England – but starting this week it’s known for serving something unique: Dunkin’ coffee in a non-Styrofoam cup.
The reason: A ban on polystyrene cups - and plastic shopping bags – enacted by Special Town Meeting members last year that has the Canton, Mass., chain trying out alternative cardboard cups well in advance of the ban taking effect after Dec. 1.
"Brookline is kind of a progressive community that will embrace green measures," said Jim Solomon, owner of The Fireplace restaurant in Washington Square – the first green-certified restaurant in Greater Boston thanks to policies around composting, recycling, water and energy use – who helped push for the polystyrene ban.
"Polystyrene is a chemical, it takes energy to produce, it's toxic to dispose of some of the by-products of its manufacturing," Solomon said, adding with a laugh: "It’s barely biodegradable. Maybe in 10,000 or 20,000 years."
But here’s the catch: Inside the supposedly greener double-shelled coffee cups there’s a plastic lining, designed to make sure that your hands don't get burned and that the coffee stays nice and warm inside the cup. That plastic lining means, under town recycling rules, you can't rinse out the cardboard cups and throw them in with the town's cardboard recycling, because the plastic would clog up the cardboard recycling machines used by the town’s solid waste contractors.
Dunkin’s Chief Supply Officer, Scott Murphy, said in an e-mail: "This is our first step in ultimately finding the ideal solution; we've been searching for a viable cup solution for several years and our quest continues. we want to take every necessary and possible step to make sure that we do the right thing for our brand, our customers, our franchisees and the environment While there is no ideal paper cup solution available to the industry, we hope to roll out an alternative cup that meets our cost, performance and environmental criteria within 2-3 years."
For years, if you’ve bought a small (10-ounce) coffee from Dunkin’, that’s come in a cardboard cup. But what Dunkin’s research has found, Murphy said, is that with a 14-ounce medium cup or bigger, that’s just too much hot liquid volume for people to hold comfortably. "When hot coffee is served in a single-walled paper cup in sizes medium or larger, the amount of coffee served combined with the hot temperatures makes the cup too hot to comfortably hold. Solving these challenges requires additional materials, including a paper sleeve or a pocket of air between the paper liner to contribute to the insulation in an effort to protect hands. Our research shows that our guests love the benefits of our foam cup, which keeps coffee hot longer while keeping hands cool, it is very durable, and its lid prevents spills and dangerous incidents from hot beverages. The new double-walled paper cup we are testing in Brookline is comparable to the foam cup and retains the properties our customers want. It is made from paper with an interior wall made from poly-lined paper. Between the interior and exterior wall is a pocket of air, which contributes to the insulation properties and keeps the guest’s hand cool and the coffee hot."
While the "greener" cups Dunkin’ is using in Brookline may still be non-recyclable trash, many environmentalist are still convinced that making, throwing out, and burning up or landfilling cardboard is a lot less bad for Mother Nature than making, throwing out, and burning up or landfilling polystyrene cups.
"You know, it's got to start somewhere," Solomon said.
Ironically, in some communities, like Brookline’s neighbor Newton, clean polystyrene containers are allowed to be put out for recycling collection -– raising the question of whether Dunkin’ moving more broadly to the plastic-lined cardboard cups would actually be a step backwards when it comes to ecology and recycling.
Elizabeth Saunders, Massachusetts director of Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group, said, "Of those communities that do accept Styrofoam –- those with single-stream recycling, for example -- there is very limited market for recycled Styrofoam and most of it ends up in the trash eventually anyway. Truly, Styrofoam has no environmentally redeemable qualities."
But, Saunders acknowledged: "The paper cups with plastic lining do not solve the waste problem either. If Dunkin’ Donuts truly wanted to make a difference for the environment they would heavily promote the use of reusable mugs, and would have compostable cups (and a way to compost them) as the single-use alternative."