Could Toronto coffee shops stop using disposable cups?

Non-recyclable coffee cups and lids are piling up in landfills – but a few eco-minded cafés are trying to cut out single-use items completely


In January, Soul Chocolate (583 Gerrard East, at Broadview) owner Kyle Wilson threw down the gauntlet: The chocolate shop and café would eliminate single-use coffee cups and become a “disposable-free” store by Earth Day.

“I was like, ‘Screw this – let’s set a cut-off date, get rid of all disposables, and we’ll deal with the repercussions,’” he says.

Wilson’s plan was to stock the café with inexpensive reusable mugs, made from recyclable polypropylene, that can be loaned out for a $2-$3 deposit and brought back to Soul Chocolate after use. The staff would then clean the used one and give customers their drink in a fresh one.

He reached out to reusable cup suppliers, tested out a bunch of models, and was ready to pull the trigger on a shipment of 5,000 plastic cups when he began having second thoughts.

“I was trying to put myself in [customers’] shoes – if you’re scrambling for the streetcar, and someone is trying to talk about selling you a mug or else you can only drink your coffee there, you’re probably never gonna go back,” he says. 

“If I’m the only shop that starts with this, will it really take off, or will I just have 5,000 cups in the basement and a lot of angry customers? You still have to approach this from a business perspective, or it’ll flop.”

Individual Toronto cafés have been trying to solve the problem of cup waste as awareness builds about the impact of non-recyclable cups and lids on the environment.

Companies large and small have started offering price breaks for customers who bring their own cups, from 10 cents at Starbucks to 25 cents at local chain Dark Horse and 13 per cent at bakery-café Le Gourmand – but in a city accustomed to paying a premium for coffee, many customers simply swallow that cost.

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Natalia Manzocco

Unboxed Market will soon only offer reusable cups at its in-house café.

Unboxed Market (1263 Dundas West, at Dovercourt) a waste-free grocery store and takeout spot in Little Portugal, is one of the first to take that big leap toward abolishing takeout cups.

Though Unboxed has offered biodegradable takeout cups at their café counter since opening in February, they’re about to phase those out for good in favour of a reusable-only program.

Owner Michelle Genttner says the compostable cups were only a temporary measure to help the store’s largely senior customer base – holdovers from Unboxed’s long run as a neighbourhood Portuguese grocery store – get used to the change. 

But Ontario’s waste facilities aren’t equipped to properly process the compostable coffee cups – so more often than not, they end up in landfill anyway.

“Every time you think you’re doing something, you hit another wall: ‘These are great, but they won’t work in our present situation,’” Genttner laments.

To ease customers into the new plan, the café began offering a 50-cent discount for bringing a reusable mug, which has gone a long way to encourage customers to make the switch. “I think the bigger numbers is what provides the incentive. People think, ‘If I’m bringing this in every day, I get a free coffee per week,’” she says.

Once Unboxed ditches the compostable cups for good, those who forget their cups can have their coffee in a ceramic mug to sip while they shop. Genttner is also considering letting people donate their unwanted travel mugs for customers to use: “That gives people even more incentive to bring their own mugs, so people can choose what cup they use,” she says.

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Natalia Manzocco

Soul Chocolate owner Kyle Wilson wants to launch a reusable-cup system in Toronto cafés.

At Soul Chocolate, Wilson is by no means abandoning the idea of a mug-share program – but he’s adamant that it’s going to have to go way beyond his shop for it to be a worthwhile solution. “For it to have the impact that I think it can, we need to create some kind of collective with a lot of cafés who are on board, so that the cups can be swapped between cafés.”

The solution Wilson is proposing is already in full swing in other corners of the world.

In Germany, the RECUP program was launched in response to the rising popularity of North American-style takeaway coffee. (The sudden flood of paper cups so incensed Munich’s environmentalists that an activist group placed a 15-foot inflatable coffee cup reading “Munich is fed up!” in city squares last year.) 

Locals were used to paying deposits for glass steins in biergartens, RECUP’s founders reasoned – so why couldn’t they do the same with reusable coffee cups?

The program has been broadly adopted by cafés across the country, though some critics say the flimsy cups (which cost €1 to reserve) tend to end up in the recycling instead of getting reused.

Closer to home is the La Tasse program, which launched last year in Montreal with 12 cafés. 

The program, which lets customers borrow double-walled polypropylene mugs for a $5 deposit, has enjoyed rapid expansion as of this June, a whopping 200 café locations all across Quebec, from Montreal and Quebec City to the tiny Magdalen Islands, carry the teal-blue cups. (Though La Tasse has no plans to expand to Ontario, Wilson says the organizers have readily offered him their help in establishing something similar here.)

Right now, Wilson is trying to assemble a brain trust of designers, developers and café owners to create a Toronto-specific version. He’d love to design, tool and manufacture it right in Toronto – maybe out of Toronto’s own recyclable plastics, if the resources exist. But the significant cost (versus just ordering ready-mades from China) would mean seeking outside funding. 

He’s looking for public feedback, with a view toward getting the ball rolling in earnest next month. 

“How cool would it be if the specialty scene in Toronto had no disposables? How do we make that a reality? That’s where I’m trying to position myself,” he says. 

“It’s a very large goal, but it’s still possible.”

Soul Chocolate is hosting a forum at Boxcar Social Riverside (4 Boulton, at Queen East) October 15 at 7 pm to discuss ideas for a cup-sharing program. RSVP here.

READ MORE: Inside Toronto’s plastics problem

nataliam@nowtoronto.com | @nataliamanzocco

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