Greenwashing Your Coffee

Today, Ron Dembo's daughter, Justine, is writing in his place. Justine is a medical student at the University of Toronto.

I recently realized that the coffee companies of Toronto (and, no doubt, of the Western hemisphere) waste a tremendous amount. I noticed that my fellow medical students buy at least two coffees per day from the hospital Tim Hortons, and each time, they use a new cup, new lid, new straw, and so on. Plus, wherever I see a coffee shop in a mall, there's no recycling bin to be seen anywhere nearby - and I doubt many people carry the used cup around until they find a bin.

Imagine the waste that could be prevented if people were to use refillable mugs...and better yet, if the coffee companies were to encourage that. And wouldn't it be wonderful if the coffee cups could be recycled? Wonderful, but hardly a fantasy. Surely we're at a stage in our civilization where recycling is not a great deal to ask for from people and companies claiming to be even the least bit green. The materials involved in the coffee business are actually recyclable in some places but, regrettably, not Toronto.

Fifteen billion cups of coffee are consumed each year in Canada. That's 45 million cups a day. Leaving aside for a moment questions of procurement and fair trade, and questions of greenhouse gas emissions associated with food miles, there has to be a real opportunity here to make a difference just by giving a damn.

Given all this, I decided to send emails to three of the biggest companies in Canada: Starbucks, The Second Cup, and Tim Hortons. Below, I'm including the Second Cup version of the email I sent (I modified it for each company), and the replies from each company. Following the emails, I've included a follow-up and a new plan.


From: Justine Dembo

Sent: Saturday, August 19, 2006 6:04 PM

To: Second Cup, Customer Care

Subject: Recycling at Second Cup

To whom it may concern,

My name is Justine Dembo, and I am a loyal Second Cup customer. I love many things about your atmosphere, uniqueness, independence, and of course your products. I am quite disappointed, though, to find that none of the Second Cup branches I have been to in Toronto (including on Bloor St., Yonge and Wood, across from University of Toronto, Yorkdale Mall, etc.) seems to have recycling bins. Given the fact that you pride yourselves on using recycled paper for your cups and cup holders, I'm very surprised by the fact that you don't make it a policy to provide customers with the opportunity to recycle these materials! I often keep my cup and bring it out to a nearby recycling bin, but I think you may be asking a lot if you expect all of your customers to do the same. As I'm sure you are all aware, people tend not to go to the effort of recycling unless it is very easy to do so - i.e., unless a big recycling bin is right nearby and visible.

You are definitely not the only coffee company that does not provide recycling routinely, but as a socially conscious company (with your admirable initiative to assist Foster Parents Plan, etc, and your loyalty to Canadian customers), I urge you to implement recycling in all your locations. It is a small cost to you, and a large benefit for our suffering environment. Well-reputed companies such as yours need to be leaders and set an example for the millions of others out there that are not environmentally conscious.

Another idea: I know you already give a ten-cent refund to customers asking you to refill their own coffee mugs, but I wondered if you might consider implementing a bit more of an incentive...for example having a card they can stamp where after 9 refills they can have one free...or perhaps get a discount on a Second Cup mug, etc.

An aside: if you are interested, my father, Ron Dembo, runs a company called Zerofootprint through which he assists corporations and individuals to reduce their impact on the environment in various ways. This company can also work to promote companies such as yours when they work to do this - you could have labels/signs etc. that advertise you as a "zerofootprint" environmentally conscious company. Several other Canadian companies have already signed on.

Thank you for your time, and I would very much appreciate a response. I, and several of my acquaintances would be happy to do anything we can to help you.


Justine Dembo


Dear Justine Dembo,

Thank you for taking the time to contact the Second Cup and I apologize greatly for the delay in this response. We take all customer feedback seriously and I'd like to address your concerns.

It is great to hear from someone so concerned with our environment. We at Second Cup also believe in doing our part for the environment. We recommend that all drinks consumed in our cafes be enjoyed in ceramic mugs to reduce the number of disposable cups/cutlery/paper products. Our stores also offer a ten-cent discount to customers who bring in their own refillable mugs. Our cups are manufactured of Polystyrene, which is recyclable where facilities exist (there is a recycling depot in Ontario). Unfortunately, there is no readily available pick up system for this product. In some locations, whole communities get together and organize drives to the depot. Our cups do not contain any recycled materials, however. Raw materials are 100% virgin FDA approved, ensuring the product is food/beverage safe.

Should you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact us again.

As a suggestion, please ask your father to be in touch with our marketing department at His business might be of interest to Second Cup.

Kind regards,

Allison Campbell

Guest Services

Second Cup


Dear Mr. Dembo,

I would like to thank you for taking the time to write to us at our Head Office. We always appreciate hearing from our customers and we certainly appreciate your care for the environment. Tim Hortons strongly believes we all have a responsibility to protect the environment. We agree that we have an opportunity to take a leadership role at this initiative and we are working hard to establish a recycling program that will work for all of our stores and communities. We are currently operating a recycling test program at eight stores in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. This program involves source separation, recycling and composting in both the store front and back of house. To date, we have reduced the amount of waste going to the landfill by 80% at the stores participating in this program.

While a recycling and composting program seems simple to implement, the challenge is much larger. There are no national guidelines to direct municipalities to consistently accept the same recyclable materials across Canada. For instance, while York Region is able to accept our cups in their paper recycling program, the Waterloo Region is not. Please know our team is working on a recycling program that will be consistent across our stores and will allow every community to recycle or compost our packaging. We are committed to working with our customers to ensure environmental stewardship. We offer a discount to patrons who use a reusable take-out mug, and provide customers with the option of using china mugs and plates when dining in-store. At Tim Hortons, we fully recognize that we are a neighbour in your community. Together, we can make a difference and keep our community clean.

Best Regards,


Operations Services

The TDL Group Corp.

STARBUCKS' REPLY: (the last to reply)

Dear Ms. Dembo,

Thanks so much for contacting us regarding your recommendation that Starbucks locations provide recycling bins for customers.

Your feedback is very important to us, so we appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. I want to assure you that I've passed on your comments to Corporate Social Responsibility department for their attention.

If you have any other questions or concerns, don't hesitate to call our Customer Relations department at (800) 23-LATTE. Or, email us from

Thank you again for contacting Starbucks, we really appreciate it.

Best Regards,

Shawn Herdt

Customer Relations Representative

Starbucks Coffee Company


After the reply I received from Tim's, I resolved to always use my reusable thermos mug from home when buying coffee. But I've noticed a disturbing trend: they may indeed allow customers to use their own mugs, but the employees seem quite baffled when asked to do so. Not only that, but several weeks ago, I spied the server first pouring the coffee into one of the company's paper cups, before transferring that coffee to my mug! So how on Earth are they protecting the environment by filling reusable mugs? This completely defeats the purpose. A few days ago, I entreated the server to pour the coffee straight into my mug, rather than using a company cup, and she looked very confused. I'm a quiet person and I don't enjoy causing a stir, but I had to ask her twice to prevent her from using the paper cup. She said that if she used my mug alone, she wouldn't know what price to charge - small, medium, or large! So, in desperation, I told her I'd pay her the price of a large if she would just pour it straight into the mug. This seemed to confuse her further. She went to get the manager, who also seemed surprised by my request. She impatiently said, "OK," and then proceeded to pour my coffee into a Tim Hortons cup, then poured that into my mug. Where, exactly, was I unclear? No idea. But clearly this company, despite its reassuring reply to my email, does not often do anything to reduce waste, even when customers go out of their way to do so! And have I mentioned yet that this mythical "discount" they told me they provide to customers who use their own mugs, has not once been given to me? All of this has left me feeling quite angry, and so my next step is to write to Tim's again and ask what they plan to do about this.