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Cradle to Cradle

How Tim Hortons closed the loop with coffee cups

In 2011 in Nova Scotia, Tim Hortons became the first Canadian quick service restaurant to implement a closed-loop recycling program. Carol Patterson, the company’s senior manager of regulatory affairs, says 99 out of every 100 Canadians recognize the Tim Hortons brand. The pervasive customer loyalty and immense recognition as a market leader created the impetus for the restaurant chain to adopt more sustainable practices such as cup recycling into business operations.

The solution

The cup-to-tray project required the collaborative efforts of Tim Hortons’ corporate offices, restaurant owners, participating staff and several community partners, together creating a unique pathway for product recycling, transportation and regeneration. The initiative required years of planning, community engagement and consumer buy-in. The end result was a cost-neutral, closed-loop system that underscored Tim Hortons’ sustainable priorities.

How it works

Tim Hortons locations in Nova Scotia implemented recycling units collecting hot beverage cups, lids, napkins and trays. Customers purchasing hot beverages were encouraged to recycle their cups and trays as much as possible. Employees even wore T-shirts to drum up consumer interest, donning a picture of a take-out tray with the caption: “In my past life I used to be a cup.”

From here, collection contractors and paper haulers take non-sorted cups and lids to Scotia Recycling Limited, which sorts and compresses recycled products. Next the cups and trays (now in bales) are delivered to CKF, a Canadian-owned paper product manufacturer based in Nova Scotia, which then processes the bales, molding them into new trays that can be sold back to Tim Hortons restaurants.

The results

After Tim Hortons locations in Nova Scotia began actively participating in the cup-to-tray program, other Canadian provinces quickly followed suit. As of year-end 2012, 850 Tim Hortons restaurants recycle paper cup products. Tim Hortons has the potential to divert 100 percent of all cups and take-out trays in Nova Scotia from landfill.

Project success easily was measured by the level of civic engagement. Patterson says the involvement of all stakeholders, even if they initially weren't supportive, was key to the project’s success. In addition, ensuring customer and guest participation meant having an engaged employee base eager to adopt a culture of sustainability into the Tim Hortons community. When students at Nova Scotia colleges began collecting Tim Hortons cups and driving them to restaurant recycling units, it was clear the initiative had rubbed off on the public.

The cup-to-tray recycling project strongly embodies many practices found in the “Innovating for Sustainability” report published by the Network for Business Sustainability. Multi-level internal and external collaboration was imperative to the project’s success, as was customer insight and cross-company input. Reaching out to community partners and expanding their network put Tim Hortons in a strategic position to rely on the expertise of unrelated industries, such as waste management and paper manufacturing. The implementation of the unique cradle-to-cradle design strategy required the unlearning of outdated knowledge and to overcome the assumption that it was too daunting a task to accomplish. Although the cup-to-tray idea seemed like a daunting goal, Patterson says Tim Hortons strived to convince weary stakeholders that the process wouldn’t be as difficult to manage as it was perceived. For years, municipalities in Nova Scotia told the company that it couldn’t be done, but today, all 156 locations in Nova Scotia effectively have closed the loop.

Patterson's message to companies looking to replicate Tim Hortons’ efforts is to not be afraid to fail; learning from past mistakes and overcoming obstacles is just part of the process.

This article originally appeared at Network for Business Sustainability and is reprinted with permission. Tim Hortons cup image by feverblue via Flickr

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