Tim Horton's Paul Yang shows off some of the new reusable and recyclable drink containers at the company's Toronto headquarters.
These cups are meant to do more than just hold coffee.
Kenya-Jade Pinto for Insider
  • The Tim Hortons coffee chain has 4,800+ locations in Canada, the US, China, the UK, and Mexico.
  • Tim's is testing reusable containers and single-use drink cups that are recyclable and compostable.
  • The initiatives are part of Restaurant Brands Internationals' science-based sustainability targets.

A crimson Tim Hortons coffee cup is ubiquitous across Canada and many parts of the United States, but the company is actively working on making them less likely to show up in garbage cans and landfills.

This week, the fast-food chain – known for its donuts, popular commercials, and being named after a Canadian professional hockey player – announced three sustainability initiatives aimed at reducing waste that will be tested in a small number of its restaurants in Canada.

Tim's will test single-use drink cups partially made of recycled paper that are compostable and recyclable. They'll also test reusable cups and food containers through TerraCycle's Loop program – that customers can get with a deposit of $3 and then return to restaurants for cleaning – starting on Nov. 1. Additionally, Tim Hortons is running a pilot to see if AI-assisted image recognition will help improve composting and recycling in 12 locations. The moves could help Tim Hortons avoid being named a top polluter by Greenpeace Canada again by reducing the amount of its packaging littering parks, appearing on shorelines, or going to landfills.

The new sustainability initiatives at Tim Hortons follow the company's recent switch to a strawless lid and RBI's announcement of new, science-based targets to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. The company is designing sustainability processes, and items with greater post-consumer value, aimed at significantly increasing what can be recycled or composted into other products. This resulted in a coffee cup with a new kind of liner instead of the traditional, non-recyclable plastic one.

Tim Horton's senior director of sustainability and packaging, Paul Yang, with a more sustainable coffee cup in the company's head office in Toronto, Canada.
Paul Yang holds a newer, more sustainable version of the Tim Horton's coffee cup he helped design.
Kenya-Jade Pinto for Insider

One of the challenges in implementing changes to the design and materials of Tim's signature coffee cup, including a new, paper-based lid, was maintaining its functionality. "As we change materials, as we shift away from sort of certain industry norms, we have to make sure that we're not sacrificing on performance," Paul Yang, Tim Hortons' senior director of innovation and sustainability, told Insider. "We need to make sure function matches with sustainability at the same time."

In order to prototype and iterate new designs more quickly, Yang said it was important to assemble the right network of partners with the right assets and infrastructure. But the timeline for the company's new paper cup finally arriving in local restaurants has become a multi-year project due to "a lot of rigorous testing" and the transformation of a complete supply chain, according to Yang.

Tim Hortons has a significant footprint in North America with more than 4,000 locations in Canada, more than 500 in the United States, dozens in Mexico, and a growing number of stores in countries like China, the UK, Saudia Arabia, and Thailand. The company was founded in 1964 in Hamilton, Ontario, and is currently headquartered in Toronto. In 2014, Tim Hortons merged with Burger King in an $11.4 billion deal to form Restaurant Brands International (RBI), which acquired the US fast-food chain Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen in 2017.

The company is conscious of the fact that many of its customers visit its restaurants on a daily basis and that habits can be hard to change for both franchises and restaurant patrons. But Yang said that research showed that explaining the reasons behind changes and the impact from making a switch - like the transition from double-cupping to recycled paper sleeves eliminating 200 million cups from going in the garbage - made people much more willing to participate. "Inherently everyone wants to do the right thing," he said. "We just need to make it easier for them to participate and do that."

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