ESE 401 Capstone#



Currently, one of the biggest concerns on this changing planet is that of ocean pollution. Since the United States lacks sufficient recycling infrastructure now that the Chinese government has banned all trash imports into China, mismanaged waste is a major concern, and a lot of it is disposed into bodies of water that eventually feed into the planet’s oceans. Although individual purchasing decisions play an important role in ocean pollution, large corporations are a major culprit of single-use plastic waste. At Dunkin’ Donuts, a coffee chain with a 12,900 storefront reach globally, a lot of the focus in the last year or so has been on making the switch from polystyrene coffee cups to ones made of double-lined paper. While effective in eliminating polystyrene waste, there are underlying issues with single-use paper products that still exist. Blue technologies and beach cleanup efforts have grown in popularity worldwide as the climate crisis has worsened. Many of these technologies, like the Seabin, pride themselves on cleaning up a lot of the pollution that exists around populated waterfront areas like harbors, marinas, and yacht club docks. Once an area of the waterfront has been cleaned up, another environmental question arises; what is to be done with the collected plastics and other pollution? Overall, it seems that embracing a circular economy and transitioning away from single-use products in general is the only way to sufficiently halt the supply of plastics and other products into the oceans and the surrounding ecosystems and environment.


If there’s one thing that Americans can’t seem to live without, it’s coffee. Coffee is embedded into daily life, with most Americans living within a couple of miles of the nearest coffee shop. According to the American Psychological Association, “caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world, consumed by some 80 percent of American adults every day” (Lu). Of that 80 percent, many don’t keep it to only one cup, but consume multiple caffeinated beverages throughout their day. In 2014 alone, 27.5 million bags of coffee were imported to the United States, so that American consumption of coffee accounted for almost 25% of all imported coffee worldwide” (Scott). Americans in business have capitalized on this national addiction, like William Rosenberg, founder of the 70-year-old multinational coffee and donut company known as Dunkin’ Donuts. On a global scale, Dunkin’ Donuts sells about sixty cups of coffee per second on an average day ( Up until May of 2020, this meant sixty polystyrene foam cups were being thrown away by the second. Considering polystyrene foam is usually unrecyclable and landfilled, and its widely known to expand in water, this is an incredible risk to the health of the environment and oceans. This year, Dunkin’ Donuts announced their full transition to double-walled paper cups in all stores globally, eliminating polystyrene foam from the cup across the board (Holbrook). Though efforts to alter materials, clean up ocean waste, and find end markets for materials considered unrecyclable are frequently in the headlines, it’s imperative that the issue of ocean pollution be solved at the source.

Polystyrene is a synthetic aromatic hydrocarbon polymer and a near cousin of Styrofoam, a material invented in the 1940s to build boat docks and insulation for buildings. It is one of the most widely used plastics, as its benefits to consumers are numerous. Polystyrene was created in the 1950s and lauded for being incredibly inexpensive and light. The material can be solid and brittle, or it can be foamed to create a lot of common everyday items. The polystyrene cups that we know well today are “made through an expansion process in which small beads of resin are warmed and then squeezed together into the desirable shape…the foam’s base material, styrene monomer, is a carcinogen; plastic- and rubber-industry workers exposed to the unreacted monomer suffer higher rates of some types of cancer” (Clay Cansler is managing editor of Distillations.). These disposable foam cups are readily available and popular for their ability to conserve the heat of the liquid they contain, but there are dangers associated with it. The presence of carcinogenic qualities in the styrene monomer means that disposed-of polystyrene products can leach out of the material, causing immense harm to ocean waters and the living creatures that rely on it for survival. There’s also a high likelihood of marine wildlife consuming disposed Styrofoam, mistaking it for fish and other food sources, which can build up in the animal’s system and lead to death. The material rapidly disintegrates into smaller pieces in water and can be spread widely throughout ecosystems as it breaks down. The lightweight material and disintegrative properties make it easy for polystyrene to be transported by wind across coastlines and throughout a region. One polystyrene cup can take thousands of years to biodegrade, which officially classifies it as a nonbiodegradable material. This means that a person who disposes of a Styrofoam coffee cup will be outlived by the cup’s presence, and the material will break down until it becomes nearly impossible to clean up. As a type of plastic, the rampant use of polystyrene single-use containers is leading to immense detriments to the environment, that will only continue to grow if not addressed. The material’s lack of recyclability and high desirability makes it incredibly high-risk for the planet’s oceans. Recalling the sixty cups of coffee a second statistic from Dunkin’ Donuts, the situation seems truly dire. It’s difficult to comprehend how the planet and its oceans can sustain that much of an influx of harmful waste from one multinational food chain alone.

The simple solution that Dunkin’ Donuts has sought out has been changing the material used to create their cups. The company has relied on Styrofoam coffee cups since its birth, so the change was slow and arduous. It was in May 2020 that they announced that “100% of [the] restaurants globally have transitioned from polystyrene foam cups to paper cups, meeting the timetable established by the brand two years ago…the new cups are made with paperboard certified to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Standard and are currently used to serve all Dunkin’ hot beverages” (Holbrook). The Sustainable Forestry Initiative is a non-profit organization that certifies forests and organizations that source forest materials based on a variety of different criteria. It’s important to note that, in order to meet the SFI Standard, a company must be able to prove that the material they purchase comes from sources that are both legal and responsible, but the forests don’t necessarily have to be certified by the SFI (“SFI Standards and Certifications”). The outlook on transitioning out the polystyrene cups is an outwardly positive one, as it eliminates the incredible demand for the material from Dunkin’ and halts the company’s destructive foam waste stream. The question then becomes how beneficial it really is for the company to transition from one disposable material to another in terms of environmental concerns. The more widespread concern of single-use paper cups is their impact on the world’s forests, and the global deforestation that occurs when paper is in high demand. According to National Geographic, between the years 1990 and 2016, 502,000 square miles of forest were lost to deforestation, which is a larger area than all South Africa (Nunez). The alarming rate at which the Earth is losing its forests, which are absolutely vital to the survival of not only humans but the majority of life on Earth, is indicative of the risks that come from relying on paper as a sustainable alternative to other types of materials, especially if that paper isn’t in an ideal state to be recycled. Yet another issue with paper cups is the energy that is requires to produce and transport them, as well as the chemicals that are emitted through these stages of the product’s life. Studies have shown that the production and transportation of one single paper cup leads to an emission of about 0.11 kilograms of CO2 (“The Environmental Effect of Paper Coffee Cups”). Comparing this again to Dunkin’ Donuts’ daily global sales, the company alone could be releasing roughly 23,760 kilograms of CO2 per hour, solely through the production and transportation of their new, more sustainable coffee cups. When combining the detrimental impacts of harvesting trees for paper cups in the first place and noting the planet’s reliance on trees as a method of carbon sequestration, a destructive cycle appears. As forests are depleted by the increase of paper cup production and emissions are released in the manufacturing and transportation stages, the increased CO2 can’t be sufficiently sequestered by the depleted forests.

It’s no secret that plastic pollution is a major environmental challenge that desperately needs to be solved. The United States used to rely heavily on China’s collection of its waste, shipping about 7 million tons of plastic waste to the country every single year (Joyce). Ever since the Chinese government cracked down on American waste and banned all imports of trash in 2018, it has become glaringly apparent how underequipped the United States truly is to deal with the sheer amount of trash it produces. American recycling centers severely lack the infrastructure to recycle most forms of plastic waste, meaning that many items everyday Americans put in their recycling bins never actually get recycled into new materials. According to an analysis by the World Wildlife Fund, “as of today, a third of plastic waste ends up in nature, accounting for 100 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2016…if nothing changes, the ocean will contain 1 metric ton of plastic for every 3 metric tons of fish by 2025” (de Wit). Not only does plastic – and polystyrene counts as plastic - take a toll on our environment, but all our waste that isn’t responsibly disposed of, composted, or recycled can have a major impact. Though paper is easier than plastic to recycle – or even compost in some cases – still “26% of solid waste dumped in dumping sites is discarded paper and paperboard” (Shisia). The next step after plastic and paper enters the environment is its ingestion by animals and sometimes humans. Animals frequently mistake pellets of plastic and paper waste as food, which then blocks their digestive systems and can oftentimes lead to injury or death. Humans on average have been found to digest approximately 5 grams of plastic every week, which equates to about the size of a credit card, just from day-to-day activities like eating food, drinking beverages, and breathing the air (de Wit). The trash that the average person disposes of daily will not only likely outlive them on Earth, but also can make its way back around into what they regularly consume.

There are organizations that are working to fight this build up of pollution, specifically in the planet’s fragile ocean ecosystems. One invention used to clean up ocean debris is the Seabin, an invention by Australians Andrew Turton and Pete Ceglinski that was created in 2014 and has grown to over 719 Seabins in 50 countries worldwide. The Seabin “acts as a floating garbage bin skimming the surface of the water by pumping water into the device…[it] can intercept: floating debris, macro and micro plastics and even micro fibres with an additional filter” (“The Seabin V5 – The Seabin Project – For Cleaner Oceans”). The Seabin attaches to the side of the dock of a marina or yacht club and collects organic and inorganic ocean waste. With technology like the Seabin, an estimated 1.4 tons of debris can be collected globally every year. Other technologies can perform the same functions, such as Skimmers and FiFish. Organizations like 4Ocean have developed harbor Skimmers that collect any floating surface debris or plastic in and around a harbor. Besides technology, there is also a growing worldwide movement for beach and ocean cleanup events, where large groups of people get together to pick up trash along their local beaches and dispose of it. The Interceptor 002 from The Ocean Cleanup is a solar-powered catamaran with a long arm that guides waste into the vessel. The Great Bubble Barrier is creating a technology that pumps a curtain of bubbles into the water that pushes plastic waste towards the riverside and into collection containers. All these solutions are certainly effective in terms of removing ocean pollution from harbors, marinas, and beaches, and creating a cleaner ocean around populated waterfront area. With the prevalence of plastic pollution in our oceans and horrifying visuals like the Great Pacific garbage patch, there’s no doubt that the oceans need these technologies and volunteers to make a dent in the problem of plastics in our oceans.

Despite all these efforts, the larger issue remains ever important. Sander Defruyt from the New Plastics Economy program at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation explains that “with a plastic and plastic-packaging market that is continuing to grow exponentially…ocean leakage is expected to triple in the next 20 years if we don’t change anything…you need to change the entire global economy and there’s no one silver-bullet solution” (“The Pros and Cons of Blue Tech in Tackling Marine Plastic Waste – World Ocean Initiative”). In the next twenty years, the current plastics industry is expected to double because developing countries are now providing whole new markets for plastics manufacturers. This means that the current rate of ocean pollution will speed up significantly, despite attempts to clean up the oceans. In essence, Defruyt is arguing that the focus should be on vastly improving the current recycling infrastructure and recyclable products, as well as an overall shift away from single-use plastics and a focus on reusables. Ocean cleanups are just a Band-Aid on the larger systemic issue, and there admittedly isn’t much of a point to focusing on creating products that can remove plastics from the ocean if the rate of replacement is accelerating. Not to mention that everything collected must be disposed of again in some way. Although some plastics that are collected from the oceans can be recycled into new materials, a lot of ocean waste can end up contaminated by fuel, oils, and other wastes. In August of 2019, Dutch non-profit The Ocean Cleanup came under fire for announcing that they would burn any materials they collected that couldn’t be recycled, in order to avoid sending anything to landfill (Fairs). While this makes sense in theory, waste-to-power plants and waste burning infrastructure in general has its flaws and burning collected waste will emit more carbon dioxide and other potentially toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. Organizations that champion ocean cleanups need to be transparent and responsible when it comes to what they plan to do with the collected material, so that the trash doesn’t continue to create further problems for the environment.

Overall, the impacts of buying one Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in a single-use cup, whether polystyrene or paper, has massive impacts on the planet. In a time when individual actions seem fruitless and are rapidly counteracted by the actions of others, the change needs to come from a higher level. As Defruyt said, systemic change needs to happen throughout society, in order to mitigate ocean pollution concerns at the source. Transitioning completely away from the use of fossil fuels to create plastic materials would be the most effective approach to take to solve this problem. Society needs to learn how to embrace a circular economy and a reusable lifestyle, and everyone needs to chip in to avoid the harmful production of single-use plastics. At a corporate level, the most effective – and admittedly most drastic – change that Dunkin’ Donuts and other major coffee chains could make would be eliminating all single-use cups from their stores and requiring customers to bring reusables. Blue Bottle Coffee, a Nestle-acquired third wave coffee roaster and retailer with 91 stores worldwide, announced in December of 2019 that they would make it their goal to be zero waste in one year (Ivanova). The intention is to require customers to bring their own cups in order to purchase to-go coffee, so that the chain could eliminate single-use cups. While this move is risky and can take a toll on a company’s business, consumers who are passionate about the product will likely be willing to take the risk. With Dunkin’ Donuts reach, at 12,900 locations in 42 countries, a change like this could have a dramatic impact on waste. If heavy-hitter coffee chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts decided to make this switch, they could likely withstand the potential detriment to their sales, while also encouraging all of their avid coffee drinkers to live more sustainably. Though the financial feasibility of this kind of transition is a whole other topic of its own, it’s impossible to deny that this kind of a change would really be a positive for consumers, oceans, and the store itself.

Blue technology, ocean and beach cleanups, and anti-littering campaigns all have their time and place in the fight against global climate change. As society nears the unfathomable metric of more plastic in the sea than fish in 2050, any changes that can be made now to avoid that dreaded goal are very welcome. But as with all environmental regulations, change needs to come from the beginning of the production line, and from the major corporations that wield the most power. It’s going to take everyone working together in some way or another to combat global climate change. Putting the pressure on the major manufacturers and corporations is the most effective way to mitigate climate change and eliminate those sixty single-use coffee cups per second.


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