Boba tea shop owners and their customers may become the latest unintentional casualties of the plastic straw bans sweeping the nation.
The city of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors unanimously voted July 24 to ban plastic straws, which will take effect in July 2019. San Francisco joins a growing list of cities that have already rolled out bans, including Seattle, Miami Beach and Berkeley. Even Starbucks has vowed to eliminate its plastic straws by 2020. But the bans have already faced backlash from disabled customers who rely on plastic straws to drink.
Shops that specialize in boba, or bubble tea — a Taiwanese drink that’s become popular in U.S. cities, primarily with large Asian populations — also say they’re stymied by the ban.
Bubble tea, which fuses Asian tea with milk or fruit syrups and sometimes contains balls of tapioca, originated in Taiwan and has most recently spread in popularity to North America and Europe. The sweet tea drink typically served with milk in a plastic cup, boba drinks come with chewy, marble-sized balls of glutinous tapioca at the bottom that have to be sucked up through a straw. The straw must be wide enough for the tapioca balls, or any other toppings that can go into the drink like lychee jellies or red beans, to pass through.
The straw also must have enough structural integrity to withstand punching through the plastic film that’s often sealed over the top of the cup to make it less likely to spill, a standard part of a shop’s made-to-order process.
Raymond Kot, marketing director for Quickly, which owns several boba shops in the San Francisco area, said one of his biggest obstacles has been finding a straw sturdy enough to pierce that plastic. In order to break the seal, one end of the straw has to be cut at an angle, forming an Exacto knife-like tip that can break through in a single punch.
Indiana-based paper straw company Aardvark has a straw called the “Colossal,” designed specifically for boba drinks. The catch? They don’t come with a pointed tip, meaning some shops may have to cut the straws themselves, and there’s already a long waitlist for orders
Plastic straws at a bubble tea cafe in San Francisco. Eco-conscious San Francisco joins the city of Seattle in banning plastic straws, along with tiny coffee stirrers and cup pluggers, as part of an effort to reduce plastic waste. It also makes single-use food and drink side items available upon request and phases out the use of fluorinated wrappers and to-go containers.
San Francisco’s straw ban is particularly strict: Unlike other cities such as Seattle, compostable plastics such as those made from corn starch-based polylactic acid, or PLA, aren’t allowed. PLA breaks down in the heat generated by microorganisms in compost, but not in the chill of the ocean. They are also too small and light to be caught by the city’s PLA composting facilities, according to San Francisco Department of the Environment spokesperson Charles Sheehan.
Under the city’s new ordinance, only non plastic straws will be allowed, which includes paper, bamboo, metal, wood and fiber-based materials.
Boba tea, or bubble tea, is a sweet tea drink typically served with milk in a plastic cup. It comes with chewy, marble-sized balls of glutinous tapioca that have to be sucked through a straw.
Several hundred shops sell boba drinks across San Francisco, according to Yelp, and all now have a year to find an alternative for their plastic straws if they want to avoid fines from the city ranging from $100 to $500 per violation.
The size and shape of boba straws, however, has made the search for alternative straws difficult. Only a handful of paper straw manufacturers produce jumbo straws with a diameter wide enough to slurp up boba – about one-third to a half-inch instead of a normal straw’s quarter-inch. The few that do make them have backlogged orders stretching out for months, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Sheehan wouldn’t say whether the city would give extensions past July 2019 for any businesses who might need them, but said he felt a year was “adequate” time for manufacturers to prepare and for the city to educate residents about the shift away from plastic.
Bubble (or Boba) Tea is hitting the scene as tea and shops are becoming more popular. The key ingredient is the tapioca balls, which must be steamed for 45 minutes before use
“We want to make sure this works for businesses,” Sheehan said. “If there are supply constraints … We’d roll up our sleeves and make sure there wasn’t any undue impact.”
The other problem is cost. A plastic straw can be anywhere from a half-cent to 3 cents, but paper straws are closer to 19 cents each. For a city that uses millions of plastic straws each month, straws could become a serious expense.
It’s unclear how much the drinks will have to increase in price, Quickly’s Kot said, but he estimated it will only be about 10 cents. He said that he doesn’t mind the hassle of finding a plastic alternative as long as his customers understand why buying a boba drink might cost them a little more in the future.
“If everybody has to pay an extra 10 cents to better the environment, it’s a good idea,” Kot said.
Emil DeFrancesco, founder of Steap Tea Bar in San Francisco’s Chinatown, said that he hasn’t found an alternative for his plastic straws yet. In his opinion, straw manufacturers should have seen the plastic straw ban coming and started developing alternatives sooner.
He’s hoping that a year will be enough time for him to find a supplier, order enough straws for his business and figure out whether he needs to adjust his prices.
“A lot of people in the bubble tea world aren’t particularly wealthy,” DeFrancesco said. “They’re often mom-and-pop stores who have to serve at cost or put it on to the consumer.”
One solution he takes issue with are metal straws, which some have proposed as a reusable alternative. Metal straws, DeFrancesco said, are impractical and too expensive, costing $6 to $10 for a pack of four. He added that, since his shop is located in a touristy area in the city, many of his customers might not understand why they should buy a reusable straw that might cost them several dollars.
He doesn’t think a modest price increase will drive away business: “I think a lot of people will say, ‘I’m willing to spend a nickel more so this doesn’t go up a sea turtle’s nose.’ ”
For Daniel Lee, a regular at T&T Café in San Francisco, any price increase more than 10 cents might make him rethink his boba habits. But for others, such as Emanuela Agostini, who is visiting from Italy, a straw that can break down instead of floating around in the ocean or sitting in a landfill offsets any extra expense she might have to incur.
“I prefer to buy something that for the environment is better,” Agostini said. “I will pay more for something that could be better for all of us instead of plastic.”