The future of the environment looks a little brighter after Dunkin' Donuts announced it is phasing out the use of polystyrene foam cups for its hot beverage products. Dunkin' Donuts said their more than 9,000 U.S. restaurants will shift to Sustainable Forestry Initiative Standard certified paper cups by the year 2020. According to Dunkin' Donuts, the corporate shift will remove approximately 1 billion foam coffee cups from the waste system each year, which equates to more than 79 cups-per-minute.
Known as Styrofoam™ and labeled as #6 plastic, polystyrene cups, food containers and shipping packaging inserts are one of the most significant causes of global pollution. Styrofoam™ contributes to nearly a third of landfill volume and a fifth of human-sourced debris that ends up in the world's oceans.1
Dunkin’ Donuts is following a national trend towards the use of compostable and recyclable food and beverage containers. Jamba Juice and McDonald's are other international fast-food chains that have or are removing polystyrene foam from their fast-food packaging.
Food businesses are responding to laws banning plastic-based foam containers enacted in cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Washington D.C., and smaller municipalities like Patchogue, New York and Portland, Maine.
About Polystyrene Foam
Polystyrene foam is a plastic made from petroleum-based benzene and styrene compounds. Cheap to produce, these compounds are known carcinogens and can leach into food, especially if the food is hot or heated in the containers. Since most foam products end up in municipal landfills, the chemicals are also toxic to soil and water supplies.
These chemical properties also make polystyrene foam durable, and as a result, it takes up to 500 years for it to decompose. A cup made from polystyrene foam and used to serve coffee that is consumed in a matter of minutes today, will likely be around beyond the year 2500.
Polystyrene foam is produced with small round “beads” that are fused together with heat and air. This process makes polystyrene foam light in weight but also easily breakable. Crumbled Styrofoam is a common cause of litter in cities, oceans, and beaches. Birds, marine mammals, and fish are often harmed or killed after ingesting polystyrene foam.
In addition to foam products, polystyrene is used to make many types of rigid plastic containers. These include most disposable coffee cup lids and many black bottom take-out containers.
Despite claims that polystyrene foam is recyclable, only an estimated 1 percent see a second life due to high costs of transportation and removing food residue.
Sustainable Alternatives to Polystyrene Foam
Fortunately, many plant-fiber based alternatives to foam and plastic are 100 percent non-toxic and compostable. These include takeout containers made from materials like corn starch, sugarcane, and wheat straw.
Compostable paper coffee cups lined with plant starch bioplastic instead of petroleum-based plastic can handle temperatures of up to 220° and are 100 percent compostable. Some of these cups are manufactured with a pocket of air in between two layers of paper to provide insulation and to prevent the need for a cup sleeve.
How You Can Drive More Positive Change
We all enjoy food and beverages on the go, and that will not change, but each of us can make a difference collectively, for the future of our planet.
If you are a restaurant owner, you can stay ahead of the trend by shifting to environmentally sustainable and food-safe containers for your takeout customers.
If you are a consumer, support businesses that use sustainable food packaging or bring reusable eco-friendly containers whenever possible. When you order takeout, request sustainable packaging for your food.
Lastly, support local efforts to minimize the use of polystyrene foam for food packaging. If your community has not addressed the issue, contact your city council and mayor to start the conversation. Together we can reduce our carbon footprint with compostable and recyclable food packaging.
1 “The Real Cost of Styrofoam.” Green Dining Alliance, St. Louis Earth Day and St. Louis University. 2016.