This week, Starbucks took a new step in the return to pre-pandemic life: it's once again offering to serve customers coffee in their reusable mug.
Meanwhile, major competitors Tim Hortons and McDonald's say they have no immediate plans to accept reusable mugs, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, many quick-service restaurants — including large chains Starbucks, McDonald's and Tim Hortons — declined to accept reusable mugs because of health concerns. That meant customers had no choice but to get their takeout coffee in a disposable cup.
Now that Starbucks has reintroduced reusable mugs, some environmentally conscious coffee drinkers are asking why the other major chains aren't following suit.
"A lot of environmental things went on the back burner during COVID-19," said Brenya Green of Toronto, who's eager to once again be served coffee in her reusable mug.
"It's been a bit too long now, especially now that Starbucks has shown a solution."
To allay COVID-19 health concerns, Starbucks has introduced a "contactless" method for handling reusable cups.
Currently, only customers at its cafés, not drive-thrus, can bring one in.
Customers remove the lid and place the reusable cup — which must be clean — on a tray or in a ceramic mug provided by Starbucks. A Starbucks employee fills the cup while only touching the ceramic mug or tray.
"We wanted to create a new normal," said Luisa Girotto, vice-president of public affairs with Starbucks Canada. "We have reimagined this from a very conservative, cautious approach for safety."
Health and safety concerns
Disposable paper coffee cups are problematic because they're lined with plastic. While the lining prevents leakage, it makes them difficult to recycle. As a result, many municipal recycling depots, including Toronto's, reject them, so they wind up in landfills.
According to Research firm Euromonitor, Canadians consumed more than 4.6 billion average-sized cups of coffee from food service outlets in 2020. For most of that year, Starbucks, McDonald's and Tim Hortons didn't accept reusable mugs.
McDonald's and Tim Hortons — which have reopened for indoor dining — still reject reusable mugs.
Tim Hortons had accepted them for decades — before the pandemic hit.
"We are continuing to monitor the public health environments across Canada as we evaluate when to bring back the use of reusable cups," said a Tim Hortons spokesperson in an email.
"The health and safety of team members and guests is a top priority for Tim Hortons and its restaurant owners."
Pre-pandemic, many McDonald's locations refused to accept reusable cups because the restaurant has no national reusable cup policy. That sparked complaints from customers, including Green, who posted a video on Facebook in August 2019 showing a McDonald's location rejecting her reusable cup.
"They told me they wouldn't fill the cup and I'm like, 'That's just super outrageous,'" she said.
In January 2019, McDonald's told CBC News it hoped to soon launch a Canada-wide reusable cup policy. But the company said last week the pandemic forced it to put that plan on hold.
"We were in the process of a national roll-out when COVID-19 hit," said spokesperson Ryma Boussoufa in an email. "With guest and employee safety top-of-mind throughout the pandemic, we are continuing to assess the right time to re-introduce reusable cups."
Reusables are safe, some experts say
Some environmentalists argue the pandemic is no longer a good reason to reject reusable mugs.
"Very soon after the start of it, we saw some really clear public health messaging that reusables were still safe," said Emily Alfred, a senior campaigner with the Toronto Environmental Alliance.
In June 2020, more than 100 scientists and medical professionals across the globe signed a public letter arguing that reusable containers and bags could be used safely during the pandemic — as long as businesses incorporate proper sanitary measures such as hand washing.
The letter points out that emerging research has suggested the main way COVID-19 spreads is by exposure to an infected person's respiratory droplets, rather than by touching infected surfaces.
"That spread from a surface to a hand to a mucous membrane is possible, but very, very unlikely in the vast majority of settings," said Hamilton-based infectious diseases specialist Dr. Zain Chagla. He wasn't part of the letter campaign, but agrees with its general message.
"A mug is probably a very low, low risk object.… Good hand hygiene likely eliminates that risk altogether."
McDonald's and Tim Hortons did not respond to questions about claims businesses can safely reintroduce reusables.
More needs to be done?
Environmentalist Alfred said Starbucks reintroducing reusable mugs is only a small step toward what all quick-service restaurants need to do: drastically reduce their waste.
"Allowing customers to bring a reusable cup is really just the bare minimum," she said. "We're waiting to hear what these big chains are going to do to start eliminating this mountain of waste that they put out every day as part of their day-to-day business."
Starbucks, Tim Hortons and McDonald's have each recently announced a slew of environmental initiatives, such as adopting widely recyclable or compostable takeout materials.
Alfred suggested a way to encourage more customers to use reusables would be for restaurants to lend customers a cup for a deposit. When customers return the cup, they get their deposit back.
Tim Hortons said it plans to test such a program later this year, where customers can borrow both reusable cups and food containers.
Starbucks has already tested a borrow-a-cup program in other countries and said it also plans to test the concept in Canada.
Alfred said she hopes that plans to implement a reusable cup loaner program go beyond a pilot project.
"Until we actually see this happening, I'm not holding my breath."