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Will Customers Freak if Dunkin’ Donuts Ditches Foam Cups?

Will Customers Freak if Dunkin’ Donuts Ditches Foam Cups?

Courtesy Dunkin' Donuts

Dunkin’ Donuts (DNKN) sells more than 1.7 billion cups of coffee around the world each year—and many of those are served in a foam cup. That volume of trash would make any environmentalist pop a vein, and the doughnut chain’s disposable cups even became the topic of a petition that’s drawn nearly 125,000 signatures.

Back in 2011 the company said it would consider using different materials, and Dunkin’ has been experimenting with other types of cups over the past few years, according to spokeswoman Michelle King. This week it started testing a double-walled paper cup at five locations in Brookline, Mass., which will ban the foam containers starting Dec. 1, reported the Boston Globe. It’s not a perfect solution—the new cups have a plastic lining, which can be tricky for recycling centers—and Dunkin’ is still collecting feedback from consumers. “This is our first step in ultimately finding the ideal solution,” King says.

Dunkin’ aims to have an alternative cup in two to three years. The chain says its final design will have to meet several criteria: The cup must keep hands cool, keep the coffee hot, be cheap, and have a better environmental footprint—for example, by being recyclable. Despite Dunkin’s deliberate pace, other chains already have paved the way with consumers. Starbucks (SBUX) customers seem pretty used to paper, and McDonald’s (MCD) started an extensive paper cup pilot last year.

“This is an important and complicated issue, and we want to take every step to make sure that we get this right,” King responds. “We are willing to make changes when we feel confident that we’re making changes that are right for our brand, our customers, our franchisees, and the environment. The fact is that there is no single-use hot coffee cup on the market today that is able to be easily recycled. So we are proactively researching possible alternatives to address the issue and examining every commercially available cup and material. This test is part of that larger effort.”

The test comes as other cities also consider banning foam containers, including New York, Baltimore, Cupertino, Calif., Portland, Me., and Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Actually, the foam cups Dunkin’ uses now are recyclable and can be used to make such things as furniture, coat hangers, and disc cases. It’s just that most cities don’t recycle foam. Earlier this year, Dunkin’ also began testing a program in a handful of stores that provides a separate collection bin for foam cups to be sent to recycling centers. It hasn’t gone too well, so far. Few customers use the bins, including those who take their coffee to go, and they often became contaminated with other trash, according to Dunkin’ Brands’ 2012 corporate social responsibility report, released in June. Still, the chain plans to implement the collection program at all its U.S. company-owned stores this year (only about 26 of its 7,400 U.S. locations are company owned—the rest are franchised). The goal: to boost the foam recycling rate at these company-owned units to 5 percent by 2015.

In the meantime, consumers who truly care to reduce the number of cups they’re adding to landfills might want to bring their own thermos.

Wong is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @venessawwong.

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