Brewing up change at your coffee chain

Saving the earth, one question at a time


Rating: NNNNN


Q What’s the environmental impact of Tim Hortons – paper cups, drive-thrus and all? What about Starbucks and Second Cup?

A We pack people off to AA meetings like they’re social deviants, but what about all those crazed Tim Hortons and Starbucks addicts out there? Okay, so their coffee fixation might be less destructive of their relationships, but, hey, if you can’t communicate with people in a positive way until you’ve had your caffeine fix, you’ve got issues.

And let’s not forget how destructive intensive coffee farming is for the developing world and its ecosystems. We can’t tally up the ecological bill behind a coffee chain without looking at where it’s getting its beans.

A quick peak at Tim Hortons’ brewing habits shows it offers zero organic or fair trade coffee. Back in 05, a “sustainable coffee partnership project” was launched, but that represents a tiny proportion of the coffee TH buys.

Second Cup is one of the largest retailers of gourmet java in Canada, so you’d think the company would keep deluxe eco beans on hand, but nope. The result? It’s been the target of a national petition campaign to get fair trade percolating on an ongoing basis. Headquarters didn’t get back to me on this, but one store manager I spoke with claims all Second Cup beans are purchased through fair trade policies direct from co-ops. Hard to know for sure, though, without FT certification.

I’ve trashed Starbucks before for not brewing fair trade coffee every day (Timothy’s even has a Rainforest Alliance certified latte on the menu), but at least the baristas will make it if you ask for it. And they stock fair trade and organic beans. Actually, Starbucks is North America’s largest purchaser of fair-trade-certified coffee.

Now for the humble vessel that holds the coveted brown liquid: the disposable cup. The good news is that most major coffee chains have switched away from that eco-terrorist styrofoam. If not, send a message by sending it back. Petroleum-based polystyrene is not recyclable in most municipalities, is seriously polluting to produce and hangs around in landfill for eons. At least coated paper cups break down someday.

Not that you paper cup users are off the hook. Killing trees is no great green act, and pretty much every paper cup you get from a coffee chain is made of virgin tree pulp. Tim Hortons cups have no recycled content, but the company is looking into trading in its plastic (PET) lining for a biodegradable corn-based one. Truth is, even if they wanted to make the switch today, there wouldn’t be enough bio cups to meet the demand.

In the meantime, the chain might print “Don’t litter” messages on its cups, but even Tim Hortons’ peeps admit that “many people, unfortunately, do not pay attention to these messages.” In TH’s favour, recycling bins have been spotted in several Tim Hortons stores – which is more than I can say about Starbucks and Second Cup.

Starbucks squeaks into the lead with 10 per cent recycled content (saving about 78,000 trees a year according to Environmental Defence), but come on, the non-fat latte pushers can do better than that. No doubt all those pulp-and-paper-mill-owned coffee cup suppliers aren’t too keen on putting out a truly virgin-pulp-free cup, but a mega-chain like Starbucks certainly has the power to push for one. Why not call Starbucks’ consumer relations line and tell them?

FYI, discounts are offered at all three chains to those who bring in reusable mugs, but critics say those savings aren’t well advertised, cashiers don’t readily give ceramic mugs to stay-in customers unless asked, and at TH, roll-up-to-win contests push people to pick paper over reusables anyway.

What about all those plastic stir sticks, mini-creamers and sugar packets? If you have a choice, always grab a dollop of milk from a large container rather than individual creamers that can’t be recycled. As for the wood vs. plastic stir stick debate, there aren’t any lifecycle assessments of stir sticks, but my guess is that plastic would lose. At least the wooden ones biodegrade, but why not ask for a real spoon. Or take your bevvy black so no stirring’s involved.

Last but certainly not least are the drive-thrus. University of Alberta students have found that in Edmonton alone, drivers spend a whopping 5,000 hours idling in Tim Hortons drive-thrus while waiting for their double-doubles and Boston Cremes, choking out about 23.5 tonnes of greenhouse gases. Did I mention that those stats represent just one day? Tim Hortons has said it’s working to reduce drive-thru wait times, but seriously, isn’t it high time we banned them? Ambitious Ecoholics might consider passing out anti-idling pamphlets at these bad boys.

Need a pick-me-up? There are hundreds of charming little cafés across the country that sell organic fair trade coffee in – wait for it – biodegradable cups! Greenshift.ca lists some of them, so pay these joints a visit. At least make sure to bring your own mug (preferably ceramic or stainless steel) and ask for the organic fairly grown joe no matter where you go – whether they carry it yet or not.

Oh, and if you do get stuck with a paper cup, don’t forget that Toronto-nians should toss them in their green bins for composting.

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