Lugging around a reusable mug to help reduce waste usually feels like a worthwhile habit. But it seemed a bit pointless to me and other patrons at a few Toronto fast food outlets recently.

It has been a month since the City of Toronto's Single-Use and Takeaway Items Bylaw came into effect, requiring all restaurants to accept customer-provided reusables. However, during a recent coffee-buying binge, I found the reality on the ground does not always match the expectations set by this bylaw, which aims to reduce single-use and takeaway items and encourage people to use their own reusable items.

Take, for example, Tim Hortons, Canada’s ubiquitous coffee and restaurant chain. They don’t mind filling your reusable cup. But in some locations, they prepare your beverage in a standard single-use cup, pour it into your travel mug and toss the disposable cup away. Watching this left me feeling slightly disheartened and frustrated.

I first heard this was happening from environmental advocates two weeks after the bylaw took effect on March 1. I decided to investigate by visiting a few locations of McDonald's, Starbucks and Tim Hortons, armed with my reusable cup.

Starting with Tim Hortons, out of five locations I visited, three prepared my drink in a single-use cup and tossed it in the trash after pouring the coffee into my reusable mug.

Canada's National Observer reached out multiple times via email to Tim Hortons for a response but did not receive comments in time for publication.

At the fourth location, I couldn't see clearly enough to tell. And at the fifth location, the server used my reusable cup to prepare my drink. However, despite requesting a small coffee, it looked like I received a medium drink because the server had no way to measure the size without using a disposable cup.

My experience at Starbucks was different. Starbucks staff prepared my drink in my reusable cup, although it took a bit more time. The restaurant has a sign on the counter indicating they accept customer reusables as required by the city bylaw, and they offer a 10-cent discount if customers bring their own reusable cups.

My stops at a few McDonald's indicated they are among the most prepared to accept reusable cups. They have a sign on the counter indicating they accept customer reusables as required by the city bylaw and offer a 10-cent discount for customers who bring their own mugs. The restaurant prepares drinks in its own large reusable cup with markings for drink measurements. When I requested a small coffee, the staff prepared the drink in their reusable cup and then poured it into mine.

Lugging around a reusable mug to help reduce waste usually feels like a worthwhile habit. But it seemed a bit pointless to me and other patrons at a few Toronto fast food outlets recently. #TorontoSingleUseBylaw #ReusableMug #TimHortons

Since it is the month of Ramadan and I was fasting, I didn't drink or eat during the day. I had my thermos where I stored coffee from all three fast food outlets: a small double double from Tim Hortons, a medium cappuccino from Starbucks, and a small double double from McDonald's. It was like a custom-made coffee mix, and I drank it later after iftar. It tasted good and the aroma reminded me of all three brands, with Starbucks being a little stronger because it was a cappuccino.

When I talked to zero-waste advocates later, they were disappointed that the spirit of the bylaw was not being followed in some locations.

“It's sad to hear that some big chains and major fast food restaurants aren't all on board with this and are wasting disposable cups that no one wants,” said Emily Alfred, a waste campaigner at Toronto Environmental Alliance. “It doesn't really make sense to make it in a disposable cup. It's a waste of money for them.”

According to Alfred, the solution lies in simple, yet effective, practices already adopted by many smaller businesses: preparing drinks in a cup or jug and pouring that into the customer's cup. “It's not complex and many small businesses already do this. Some big chains have done it, too.”

The city's single-use bylaw is a really important first step to eliminating single-use items, said Alfred. Serving people in their own cups is an easy way for restaurants to save money and something that most already do, she added.

“This is a good reminder that regulations matter. While most small businesses were already doing this, major chains were really dragging their feet and many are also actively lobbying ... the city and other governments to slow regulations like this down.”

The city bylaw only instructs restaurants to accept a reusable cup provided by a customer when purchasing either a hot or cold beverage, said Angela Doyle, manager of solid waste policy and planning for the City of Toronto, in an emailed statement. There is nothing in the bylaw prohibiting restaurants from using disposable cups when preparing drinks for customers. It is the responsibility of each retail business establishment to determine the most effective way to implement the bylaw requirements, Doyle explained.

“It is really discouraging, indeed,” said Quentin de Becker, a member of Scarborough Zero Waste, which has long advocated for such mandatory policies by the city. “But what is important to note is that it really varies from one Tim Hortons to another. In some rare stores, the staff is able to do it, but in other stores, they don’t.”

De Becker says most of the single-use waste isn't solely caused by individuals, but rather by big brands like Tim Hortons and Starbucks, as well as certain industries like construction companies. While individuals certainly need to change their behaviour by using reusable items, it's equally important for larger corporations and the city to take action and do their part, he said.

Alfred also advocates for regulations mandating the provision of reusable dishes for dine-in orders.

“This law around bring-your-own cups is just the start and it only addresses a small part of the problem — we need to go much further,” said Alfred. “What we want to see is rules that require restaurants to offer real reusable dishes for dine-in. That would have a much bigger impact, and it’s something that we know is already working in other places.”

Keep reading

Refuse to pay for any beverage that violates the intent of the bylaw (e.g., Timmy's)

To be ethical, tell them that up front.

Canadians are estimated to use 4 million disposable cups daily or about 1.5 Billion per year. This number seems to be consistent with other English speaking countries such as Australia and the UK.
As stated below, I also wouldn't pay for Tims if my coffee was prepared as stated in 3 of 5. We are cutting down the worlds largest boreal forest for what? Disposable cups and toilet paper? Do we deserve what we will be getting with climate change? Ask yourself!

Perhaps we should all stop pooping.

Some A&W locations sell their drinks in a cooled glass mug if you dine in, and will sell coffee in a china cup if you ask. Since they advertise that feature, it implies that there are staff at those outlets who are accustomed to washing dishes.

Or loading the dishwasher ...