On Tuesday, the restaurant chain told CBC News that it hopes to have a new national policy in place by the end of February, which will allow customers to be served coffee or tea in their personal mug instead of a disposable cup.
"We listen to our guests, and we know this is an area of growing importance to Canadians," said spokesperson Ryma Boussoufa in an email.
The statement comes after CBC News first reached out to McDonald's in October, inquiring about customer anger over its current policy.
Brenya Green said she was stunned when she recently ordered a coffee at McDonald's and the restaurant chain told her that drinks must be served in disposable cups for sanitary reasons.
"I just thought it was ridiculous," said Green, who lives in Toronto. "I've been to so many coffee shops and I've never encountered that before."
McDonald's Canada told CBC News that currently, individual locations decide if they will accept personal mugs. However, on Twitter, the chain has provided a more fulsome explanation, telling numerous irate customers that, while some locations may accept reusable mugs, it "normally" rejects them "to avoid cross-contamination."
As concerns over the environment grow, McDonald's — along with other fast food restaurants — faces pressure to curb its takeout waste.
Disposable paper coffee cups are a big concern, because they're lined with plastic, which prevents leakage but makes them difficult to recycle. As a result, most municipal recycling depots — including Toronto's — reject them, so they wind up in landfills.
Research firm Euromonitor estimates Canadians bought 2.49 billion litres of brewed coffee from food service outlets in 2019, enough to fill almost six billion medium-sized coffee cups.
'Just not acceptable'
Many coffee shops in Canada have accepted reusable mugs for years, prompting customers to question McDonald's current policy.
"It's just not acceptable," said Judith Banville of Craighurst, Ont., who blasted McDonald's on Facebook in September after the restaurant refused to serve her tea in her personal mug. "It does not make sense to continue to prevent people from using a reusable cup."
Brenya Green works as a sales representative for Adventure Canada, which offers Arctic cruises, and said she became passionate about the environment after seeing firsthand how global warming is shrinking glaciers.
"We're seeing it now and it's scary."
To expose the McDonald's policy on reusable mugs, Green returned to the restaurant with a colleague, Victoria Polsoni, who filmed Green again failing to have a coffee served in her personal mug. Since it was posted on Facebook in August, the video has garnered 10,000 views.
"I just had to tell this story," said Polsoni, who also lives in Toronto. "It triggered a fire inside me."
Coffee competitors Tim Hortons and Starbucks said that they have accepted customers' reusable mugs for decades, and even provide a 10 cent discount to customers who use them.
However, several Tim Hortons customers complained to CBC News that they have witnessed employees at certain locations pour the coffee into a disposable cup before filling a customer's reusable mug.
Tim Hortons told CBC that all locations should pour customers' drinks directly into their reusable mugs — as long as they're clean.
Old habits hard to break
Even though Tim Hortons and Starbucks accept reusable cups, they still face a challenge, as most of their customers opt for disposable ones.
According to a 2019 Greenpeace Canada brand trash audit, Tim Hortons, Starbucks and McDonald's made the list of the top five companies behind branded plastic waste collected in nine beach and green space cleanups across the country.
Coffee cups and lids, collectively, were among the top five single-use plastic items most commonly found. Other top offenders included straws, stir sticks and food wrappers.
Emily Alfred, a senior campaigner with the Toronto Environmental Alliance, said that when it comes to coffee cups, the focus should be on reusables, because recyclable items still create a bigger environmental footprint.
"It's still about using materials once and just recycling them," said Alfred. "We need to move toward the circular economy, where we conserve resources."
Tim Hortons agrees and said it's on a mission to convince more customers to bring personal mugs. The chain plans to widely promote reusable cups this year, and recently started selling ones priced as low as $1.99 each.
"If anyone's going to be able to change guest behaviour in terms of going with reusable cups and taking a more sustainable angle, it's going to be us," said Mike Hancock, chief operating officer of Tim Hortons, in an interview.
Alfred said to bring about effective change, governments need to introduce regulations.
"We kind of need every level of government to be moving on this as quickly as possible."
Some municipalities already have plans in motion. On Jan. 1, Vancouver banned foam cup and takeout containers, and will introduce a 25-cent charge for disposable paper cups next year. Toronto is also exploring ways to reduce single-use takeout materials.
The federal government has pledged to ban certain single-use plastics as early as next year. No word yet if disposable coffee cups will make the list.