Tim Hortons Announces Reusable, Returnable Coffee Cups

A partnership with Loop allows customers to pay a deposit for a cup that's returned for cleaning.

Tim Hortons reusable containers
An example of the reusable containers Tim Hortons plans to adopt.

Tim Hortons

Tim Hortons is a big deal in Canada. Almost every Canadian will tell you what their go-to order is – a double-double, a French Vanilla Cappuccino, a box of Timbits. (As a Canadian myself, I don't even know what these would be called anywhere else – "doughnut holes," perhaps?)

I'm not a huge fan of the coffee myself, preferring to seek out small, independently-owned, fair-trade coffee shops when I need caffeine on the go, but I am a big fan of Tim Hortons latest announcement that they're joining forces with TerraCycle's zero-waste food packaging initiative, Loop, to offer reusable coffee cups in the near future.

Starting in 2021 in select Toronto locations, customers will be able to have their hot beverages and food served in reusable containers, for which they'll pay a deposit fee. The cups and containers can be returned to participating restaurants or wherever a bin is located (not necessarily where they bought their drink), and the deposit will be refunded, likely using the Tim Hortons app. The dirty containers will be sent to Loop for cleaning and sanitizing, and then the cycle starts again – minus a bag of garbage being hauled off to landfill.

This is a fantastic partnership with the potential to be very successful, especially since Tim Hortons has such a loyal clientele. People often go daily, fitting a stop into their morning routine, which makes it easy to get into a cycle of returning used cups whenever they pick up new ones. The fact that customers don't have to remember to bring their own reusable cups or wash them at home will make them more inclined to use it.

Canadian grocer Loblaw's also has a plan to join Loop in early 2021, switching to reusable packaging for several store-brand items and rolling it out across parts of Ontario and Montreal. This bodes well for Tim Hortons, as it helps to familiarize shoppers with the idea of in-store reusables. Hope Bagozzi, Tim Hortons' chief marketing officer, told the Globe and Mail, "The more [retail] partners there are, the more quickly Canadians will adopt it. The idea is to make it as easy as possible."

Unrelated to its Loop partnership, Tim Hortons is currently sitting on a stash of 1.8 million reusable coffee cups that it planned to give away during its annual springtime Roll Up The Rim contest (which I've criticized for wastefulness in the past). When the coronavirus struck, that plan was put on hold indefinitely, and the cups – which had already been delivered to franchises – are being stored by individual restaurants. 

In-store reusables do make more sense than telling customers to bring their own, though, because they're the easiest option, the path of least resistance for the customer. As Tom Szaky, TerraCycle founder and Loop CEO, explained, "Reusable packaging will only become widespread when it is nearly as convenient as disposables." Being able to swap an empty cup for a freshly filled cup and have the deposit quickly refunded through an app is pretty much the definition of convenience.

I do hope that Tim Hortons and Loop considered carefully the design of their cups. The promotional picture of a plastic reusable cup is less appealing in light of a recent study that found a link between hot liquids and polypropylene plastic: the hotter the liquid, the more microplastic particles are released into the beverage. Perhaps an insulated stainless steel design would be better than plastic (if it's polypropylene), not to mention more pleasant to drink from.

The announcement comes during Waste Reduction Week, when Tim Hortons said it will take additional steps to minimize waste, such as ending the practice of double-cupping (using two cups to insulate a drink); adopting new paper packaging for sandwiches; and switching to 100% recycled paper napkins. These are commonsense moves, but the Loop partnership truly sets the coffee shop chain above its competitors. If it can make this work, it's setting a high standard for the rest of the industry – and the others will have no choice but to follow. 

I just might have to stop in more regularly...