In Canada, everybody loves their “Timmy’s.” The eponymous hockey player would not have believed that the coffee and donut chain he founded would one day become so ubiquitous a Canadian institution (and increasingly an American one since its acquisition by burger giant Wendy’s). A future test for immigrants seeking citizenship might involve a driving exam to seeing if they can keep a car on the highway while balancing (and consuming) a large Tim Hortons coffee in one hand and three or four Timbits in the other. (Something we all do, right?)
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a regular Timmy’s customer and through my Rotary club even know the owner of all four shops in my town, Collingwood. (In a marriage made in heaven, her husband is the local police chief.)
In early March the coffee chain found itself in some hot water when a Canadian Press story besmirched its reputation by suggesting its Roll Up the Rim to Win contest “might win you an SUV, but critics say the environment loses.”
In the contest (as readers surely know) customers peel back the lips of their take-out coffee cups hoping to learn they’ve won everything from a plasma TV to an SUV. I have to use my teeth to roll back the rim, which makes the prospect rather yucky of handing this to Tim Horton’s staff if I ever win anything, although mine always say “Please play again.”
The CP story alleged that the contest, which has become a Canadian ritual since its introduction in 1986, “promotes waste and propagates littering.”
The story quoted one Don Dick, Alberta director of Pitch-In Canada — “a national non-profit organization concerned about the proliferation of packaging and its effects on the landscape” — saying that people buy more coffee during the contest and often toss out the non-winning cups. Dick, the story said, suggests the company should use small scratch cards instead of treated paper cups for the promotion. The company should also initiate customer-awareness campaigns.
The story was a PR nightmare for Tim Hortons as the CP story was carried nation-wide. It pointed out that even customers who drink their coffee inside the chain’s 2,470 Canadian outlets in ceramic cups are given empty paper cups during the contest. In Nova Scotia, a government-sponsored study released last July showed Tim Hortons accounted for 22 per cent of all litter in that province. (McDonald’s had 10.1 per cent of all identifiable litter.)
Any criticism of my drug of choice gets my attention, so I decided to investigate.
I discovered that the original writer at The Edmonton Journal who created the story may have incorrectly attributed quotes to Pitch-In Canada.
“In fact, we did not make those quotes,” asserts Allard W. van Veen, founder of Pitch-In Canada. “The Don Dick quoted was not our Don Dick!
“I had also been interviewed by the same journalist, with totally different quotes, but my quotes were not used.”
Van Veen had asserted that “the promotion itself is environmentally friendly as it reuses a cup for both drinking and as entry into a contest. This avoids added coupons, etc.” The cups become litter only if the consumer disposes of it in an environmentally unfriendly manner, van Veen says, adding that the cups can be put in composting programs (as some are in communities that have composting programs).
Van Veen concedes that Tim Hortons should attempt to have cups made from post-consumer waste and, where systems exist, place containers used in-store for recycling.
Apart from that, though, the only unfortunate part about the Tim Hortons promotion, van Veen says, “is that they give consumers who consume in-store both a china cup and a paper cup — the latter is then only used as entry for contest and subsequently disposed of.
“We feel the consumer should either be asked to drink coffee in a cup in-store or be given an alternate opportunity to enter the contest.”
I subsequently contacted Greg Skinner, Tim Hortons manager of government affairs. Skinner wouldn’t divulge how many millions (or billions) of paper cups the shops generate each year, but he pointed out that customers who present their own refillable cups receive a five cent discount for their coffee, a “timbit” of information that on its own will save this author a small fortune in future. He says the company is conducting recycling and composting experiments across the country to see “what works.” The chain may be national, but recycling relies on local systems, and the company is discussing programs with various municipalities. Skinner gives special mention to projects in Kitchener and Guelph in Ontario, and the Westmoreland and Albert facility in New Brunswick that successfully recycles most of the company’s cups in that province.
Though the Edmonton story may have been manipulative, it was inevitable that Tim Hortons would become a poster child for the issue of litter, much like Coca-Cola a few decades ago. The recent cynical media kafuffle will hopefully inspire the company to do more; perhaps every shop will have big blue or green recycling or composting bins one day. In the meantime, I will continue rolling up my rims in hope of winning one of those gas-guzzling SUVs. I might have some explaining to do to my environmentalist friends, but in truth my main worry would be whether or not the beast will fit the narrow turning lane of my local Tim Hortons drive thru.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine.