Alice Brown started to really notice the abandoned Dunkin’ cups a few years ago. There was no rhyme or reason why. But once she saw a few scattered about during her commute — whether by foot, bike, or train — she quickly realized they were almost inescapable.
There was even a pattern to the bereft beverages.
“They were always perched [on top of something], and very often they’re left upright and they’re half full,” Brown said. “I couldn’t stop seeing it.”
Was this odd phenomenon unique to the people who inhabit the Boston area, she wondered? Why were people forgoing perfectly good drinks from the popular doughnut chain, leaving them on top of MBTA ticket kiosks, wedging them between parking meters, or somehow balancing them on fire hydrants?
All of this tugged at her curiosity and eventually her run-ins with the deserted Dunkin’s became so consistent, that she started documenting them with her phone, capturing their lazy, lonely essence.
Brown, an urban planner, turned her collection of images of the drinks into something of a hobby, called @halfdrunkdunks, a surprisingly artistic Instagram account that has seemed to resonate with others who have also noticed the abundance of half-consumed coffees cast aside.
The concept is simple: “Photos of #halfdrunkdunks and other abandoned cups in Boston and other cities. Are you planning to come back for that beverage?,” her Instagram profile reads.
“I never imagined I’d be collecting close to 500 photographs of these things in three years,” said Brown. “I did not think it would have a steady content stream the way that it has.”
The carefully curated endeavor is a bit tongue-in-cheek. But it also captures several truths about modern life: people are sometimes wasteful; their lives are so busy that they accidentally leave their coffees behind in a mad dash to the next place they need to be; and — true to the local stereotype — there’s a strong cultural allegiance to the Dunkin’ brand.
While some of her friends insist the cups are nothing more than litter, Brown likes to consider their possible back stories.
“Sometimes they get left on top of MBTA CharlieCard kiosks, and you’re like, ‘You definitely meant to take that with you after you were done with your transaction, but you ran to catch your train,’” she said. “I think they’re neglected for really different reasons — that’s part of what’s interesting.”
When she first started documenting the deserted drinks, she’d throw them away after snapping a photo. But she stopped after tossing a coffee she had assumed was abandoned, only to be scolded by a person who was still drinking it.
“They came and found me and yelled at me,” she said. “So I have not discarded anymore. I leave them where they are, in situ.”
On her account, Brown is intentional about the framing of each photo, giving what at first glance looks like mere detritus an artistic quality. The images typically highlight our Instagram-able cityscape, with the cups squarely in the foreground.
“I’m framing them like they are portraits of cups,” she said. “There’s a look. It can’t just be in the corner of the frame.”
One photo shows a nearly finished ice coffee surrounded by the familiar fabric of Orange Line seats, while another features the former Hancock building in the background, shimmering in a late-summer sun.
A picture from July that was sent to Brown showed a half-Dunks left behind in a popular bakery. “Is there anything more Boston than a #halfdrunkdunks abandoned on the counter at Bovas Bakery?” the caption read.
Her personal favorites are the cups carefully placed in odd places.
“I always love the ones perched on something that’s the size of the bottom of a Dunks,” like the top of a bike rack or in between two parking meter heads, she said. “Even if someone accidentally left it because they set it down to pay their parking or lock their bike up, the fact that they had to be so careful setting it down, the precision is great.”
The focus on abandoned beverages might seem strange. But Brown is not alone in finding the trend intriguing. People will often send her photographs they’ve taken of discarded coffees precariously placed in nooks around the city, images she then posts to her account.
In July, an abandoned iced coffee left on a median between the inbound and outbound trains at the Ashmont MBTA station became a fixation for people on Boston Reddit who documented its extended stay and sought an explanation for how it wound up there.
While litterbugs have given her a fun pastime as she navigates the city, she wishes that people and businesses would take time to consider the environmental impacts.
“Part of me is like, Starbucks and Dunkin’ need to offer a smaller iced coffee size. Clearly people aren’t finishing these iced coffees,” she said. “Personally, I wish that everyone who got an iced coffee in a plastic cups recycled their cups.”
But the account isn’t meant to be a “lecture on their consumption habits,” she added.
“The account is, ‘this is a funny phenomenon in the world. Enjoy how prolific it is along with me.’ ”