Honey Dew Donuts founder and CEO Dick Bowen never liked Styrofoam cups. They just seemed chintzy, the kind of thing you’d find at a backyard barbecue or in a church basement.
“Our coffee was too good for foam,” said Bowen, whose company made the switch from paper to foam two decades ago. “I literally always had a bad taste in my mouth to go to foam. It didn’t feel right.”
Now foam is getting the heave-ho, as Honey Dew strives to be more environmentally friendly. But as Kermit the Frog might say, it’s not easy going green.
Like its giant competitor, Dunkin’, Honey Dew used Styrofoam cups to accommodate customers’ ever-growing demand for bigger portions, and Styrofoam could keep big cups of coffee hot without burning hands. When Bowen opened his first shop in 1973, the biggest size was 10 ounces; today it is 24 ounces. And the Plainville-based chain runs through about 12 million Styrofoam cups a year.
This month, Bowen will say goodbye to the foam cup, as new double-walled paper cups arrive across Honey Dew’s 147 stores in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. You can’t miss the new cups; not only are they more environmentally friendly, but the beige branding is replaced with a bold new red design.
Corporate America is embracing sustainability. So are millennial customers and municipalities. That means the coffee industry has to deliver a greener product.
Dunkin’ is also on track to eliminate foam cups in New England locations by year’s end, and all of its stores nationwide in early 2020. The change will remove 1 billion foam cups — which are hard to recycle — from the waste stream annually. For customers nervous about change, Dunkin’ assures that its double-walled paper cup “has heat retention properties that are equal to our foam cup.”
Honey Dew’s cups are made from 88 percent renewable resources; the double walls keep the coffee hot and eliminate the need for a sleeve. But are these new paper coffee cups recyclable?
That’s debatable. Coffee companies say yes; environmentalists say not so fast. The new paper coffee cups are lined with plastic and would need to be sorted separately from paper and plastic collections. And few facilities have the right equipment to recycle something made out of mixed materials.
So it’s possible to recycle the new Honey Dew cups — but practically speaking, it’s not going to happen.
That explains the muted reaction from environmentalists. Styrofoam is among the most toxic of plastics, so eliminating it from landfills is a good thing, but they don’t think new paper cups are the best solution.
“None of the systems in Massachusetts accept or collect coffee cups,” said Kirstie Pecci, director of the Zero Waste Project at the Conservation Law Foundation, referring to Styrofoam and the new cups. “Do not put coffee cups in your bin.”
For Pecci, and from the perspective of state environmental officials, the gold standard is to break the habit of using a disposable cup.
“Eliminating Styrofoam in favor of paper cups is, from a public health and environmental perspective, the right thing to do,” Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, said in a statement. “However, bringing in your own cup beats all.”
Bowen understands the dilemma, but he says Honey Dew is doing its part to help the environment. “It’s in their corner to make this work,” he said of municipal waste facilities.
So how hard can it be to make an easily recyclable coffee cup?
We may have sent a man to the moon, but a truly sustainable disposable cup has been elusive even for coffee kahuna Starbucks. For three decades, the Seattle chain has been working on this issue, even hosting three “cup summits,” two of them at MIT.
Starbucks will tell you their paper coffee cups are recyclable in communities that have the infrastructure. But Starbucks realizes that’s not good enough, and in 2018 committed $10 million to help launch the NextGen Cup Challenge to create an industry consortium to develop a greener cup.
In February, the consortium unveiled 12 winners of the challenge, whose ideas ranged from innovative cup liners to reusable cup services; some of those winners will move onto a next phase of piloting their ideas through an accelerator program.
The biggest takeaway for Peter Senge, an MIT senior lecturer who participated in a cup summit, is that it will take a village: retailers, recyclers, and government.
“We all have a stake in nurturing the ‘underground economy’ that can make it economically viable to harvest our waste,” Senge wrote in an e-mail.
Honey Dew began its hunt for the proper paper cup over six years ago. (It has long used paper cups for its smallest size.) Manufacturers were making alternatives to foam, including the double-walled paper cups, but they were too expensive.
Honey Dew also didn’t want to give up its lid design. For some customers, it’s all about the lid. What good is a cup when you can’t sip without spilling? (Eighty-percent of Honey Dew’s business is takeout.)
By the fall of 2018, Honey Dew settled on a cup made by Dart Container Corp. that worked well with the plastic lid design the chain was already using. The new cups began arriving at Honey Dew stores in September. All the foam will be gone by the end of the month. Paper is more expensive, and some franchisees may pass the cost on to the customer. A 16-ounce paper cup, for example, costs 11 cents, while the foam version costs 7 cents.
But the work to reduce plastic waste is not done at Honey Dew. Don Leavitt, the executive who led the paper cup chase, is now onto his next project.
“Now that I have the cups under control,” he said, “I’m working on the straws.”
Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leung.