Boba Tea Shops Scramble as San Francisco Moves to Ban Plastic Straws

Owners of bubble tea shops in San Francisco have been forced to search for new kinds of straws as the city’s Board of Supervisors decides to ban those made from plastic.

The ordinance, introduced by Supervisors Katy Tang and Ahsha Safaí, forbids establishments from offering plastic items such as straws, stirrers, toothpicks, beverage plugs and cocktail sticks.

It also requires outlets to provide condiment packets and napkins only upon request or in self-service stations.

According to San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, plastic straws account for 67% of the city’s litter among single-use food and beverage packaging.

When passed on July 31, the ordinance will take effect in July 2019.

San Francisco joins other cities in its pursuit of a plastic-free environment. On July 1, Seattle’s ban took effect.

Alameda, Berkeley, Davis, Oakland, San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz have all considered or proposed similar bans. Big corporations such as Alaska Airlines and Starbucks have also vowed to do the same, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

However, the legislation proves to be particularly challenging for San Francisco’s bubble tea shops, which have always depended on specialty straws that help customers suck big tapioca pearls.

Among them is Boba Guys, which runs five outlets in the city and another five in California and on the East Coast.

“We literally can’t have an operation without straws,” co-owner Andrew Chau said.

Image via Instagram / caoilemich

While Boba Guys has since backed the ordinance in support of sustainability, it has not found a perfect alternative yet.

A point of consideration is the fact that the shift to paper or compostable plastic straws will be expensive. These reportedly cost 7 to 19 and 7 to 20 cents per piece, respectively.

In comparison, plastic straws cost only 1 to 3 cents per piece.

Image via Instagram / bobaguys

The chain initially considered straws made from polylactic acid (PLA), which was usually made from corn starch, but it was also out of the ordinance.

Debbie Raphael, director of the city’s Department of the Environment, said, “PLA is designed to break down in high-heat settings, which is not the oceans. That straw or lid, if it ends up in the ocean, it’s not breaking down.”

Nonetheless, Boba Guys has a few other options. These include paper straws from Aardvark and World Centric as well as food-grade, seaweed-based plastic straws from Loliware.

Paper straws

But bubble tea businesses are not alone in their concerns. As it turns out, people with disabilities fear that the ordinance will limit their accessibility in similar commercial establishments, ABC7 reported.

Flexible plastic straws are regarded as the most convenient and safest straws to use for drinking and eating. Paper straws tend to dissolve fast, while those made of metal are inflexible and potentially hazardous to those with mobility issues, the outlet said.

Tang said that such concerns are addressed in a provision of exception within the ordinance.

Featured Image via Flickr / Larry Jacobsen (CC BY 2.0)

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