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  • Writer's pictureMark Wickson

Coffee Cup Calamity


Like many people, I drink coffee. Usually once a day. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Also like many people, I am at least somewhat aware of the environmental and social impacts of my coffee consumption. In part, this means that I try to avoid using disposable, single-use coffee cups. You can normally see me carting around an insulated travel mug just in case I get the inkling for a hot beverage.

For those of us who use travel mugs regularly, we know all too well that it is not always as easy or as glamorous as we make it seem. You need to remember to bring it with you, you're prone to forget it wherever you set it down, you have to clean it, and you need to spend a lot of money on it (relatively speaking). The obstacles to using travel mugs may not sound like much but they’re apparently more than enough to keep Canadians from widespread adoption. There are a few estimates floating around of just how many disposable coffee cups we use in Canada each year. These estimates rarely disclose methodology, but rest assured, they are all in the billions*.

The obstacles above are by no means an exhaustive set - I just listed the basic ones. There are also issues for coffee shops when it comes to making hot drinks in nonstandard-sized vessels**.

Hey guys, check it out. I just got that new Flamingo Mango frappe in my Wix-brand travel mug. Wait a minute...

There are also some social-credit/band-wagon effects to keep in mind. People like to show their cool new drinks on their social feeds. However, this is pretty difficult to do with reusable cups as they tend to be opaque. And if you get me feeling existential enough, I would argue that individuals actually enjoy using disposable products because it reinforces their own relative permanence. My life may be fleeting but my plastic-lined paper cup is more fleeting.

In my opinion, one obstacle reigns supreme; the inconsistency or complete lack of policy and procedure concerning reusable cups in quick-service restaurants (QSRs).

QSRs are usually what we think of as fast-food joints. These businesses are well-oiled machines that rely on precise policy and procedure to deliver an efficient and streamlined experience. When that policy and procedure is weak or missing, something like a nonstandard-sized cup of ambiguous cleanliness belonging to a specific customer really throws a wrench into the works and introduces substantial uncertainty on either end of the coffee transaction.

When committing to using reusable cups is already plagued by the obstacles I mentioned above, nothing is more disheartening than uncertainty around how your QSR experience will proceed. Am I just going to wait ten minutes in line for the cashier to tell me they don't accept reusable cups? Some QSRs like Starbucks and Tim Hortons have gotten the memo and make their reusable cup policy readily available online. Even a big player like Second Cup responded to my email asking about their policy very quickly.

But the biggest Canadian coffee player by preference, McDonald’s Canada, has neither made their policy readily available on their website nor has been forthcoming with formally responding to emails (at least mine) about the subject. Apparently their official position, revealed through Tweets, is to leave it up to individual franchisees to make a decision. So that explains how in the last few months I have had a variety of exchanges between myself and McDonald's cashiers. In one instance, the cashier outright refused to even look at my travel mug let alone fill it with coffee, while less than a week later a cashier gleefully accepted it and even called over a group of trainees to show them how to handle it. It also explains how my point-of-sale system had a dedicated "own cup" button when I worked as a cashier at a McDonald's almost a decade ago.

The thing is that having clear policy and procedure can actually affect the choice of customers. For example, I like McDonald's coffee and don't particularly care for Starbucks' coffee. I also have a nostalgic preference for the McDonald's experience over the Starbucks' experience, but when I'm wanting to grab a quick coffee, that preference order changes. It changes because I know exactly what's going to happen when I take my travel mug to one but not to the other. Anything to maintain that sweet impersonal streamlined QSR experience. So, when given the chance between certainty and uncertainty, I begrudgingly choose the green mermaid over the red clown.

When huge companies don't make a decision on policy in situations like these, they're not just leaving money on the table, they're passively encouraging customers to take that money elsewhere.

There has been a recent shakeup in the QSR coffee world. CBC is reporting that McDonald’s Canada has disclosed that the company plans to have a national reusable cup policy in place before the end of February. This certainly isn't a silver-bullet solution. There will still be plenty of customers who just don't care enough to use reusable cups, but it should certainly help. And while there are still 'horror stories' of drinks made in disposable cups before being poured into the customer's personal mug, defeating the point entirely, we shouldn't give into complete cynicism. What this new announcement does mean is that customers can expect more certainty concerning their QSR coffee experience and now have an opportunity to hold individual locations accountable to a national policy.


*I have come across several estimates for the number of disposable cups thrown away per year in Canada. Almost none cite back to any actual source with an empirical methodology of how they got to their estimates. The two below are the most common.

  1. Zero Waste Canada begins with an estimate of 14 billion cups of coffee being consumed in Canada every year, with 35% being "to-go" and figuring "most" of the to-go coffees are served in disposable cups. If we take those numbers further and assume most means around 70%, that would be approximately 3.5 billion disposable cups each thrown away each year in Canada from coffee alone.

  2. A more conservative figure of 1.6 billion disposable cups per year pops up in many big name news outlets as well as smaller ones (see the following articles for more information: 1 2 3 4 5). While the only direct attribution I could find is a reference to a January 9th, 2014 news release from Simon Fraser University. Which leads me nowhere. If you are reading this and know the source of that 1.6 billion figure, please tell me. Finding that source has been my polyethylene-coated white whale for some time now.

**I actually managed to grab a barista from Starbucks during a downtime and asked her some questions about reusable cups. When asked if a reusable cup threw off her workflow, she nonchalantly said "Not really.". I'm unsure if this answer is the result of baristas already experiencing the pinnacle of man-made chaos during rushes or if it's because reusable cups really aren't a problem, at least in the Starbucks model. She went on to say that reusable cups are only problematic for certain drinks which are "free-hand measured" as it's tough to gauge volume without the lines used on Starbucks' cups. She also mentioned that she is surprised at how many more reusable cups are coming through her location nowadays and that in her mind the only issue she has with the proliferation of reusable cups is that she would rather not handle the customers' ceramic mugs because of fear of breaking them. So do your barista a favour and use something that won't shatter.

Recommended citation format:

Wickson, M. "Coffee Cup Calamity". Food Focus Guelph (72), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, January 31st, 2020.



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