San Francisco Straw Ban Prompts Boba Crisis

Iced milky bubble tea with tapioca pearls. Fruit and berry bubble tea variety. Raspberry, mango, lemon mint bubble tea. Photo: GettyImages.com

2018 is shaping up to be the Year of the Plastic Straw Ban: Seattle 2018, Santa Barbara 2019, Disney 2019, San Francisco 2020, Starbucks 2020, Taiwan 2030, plus Now and Soon and Sometime American Airlines, Hyatt, McDonalds UK, IKEA and many other large multinationals. The ban is both an opportunity for cartoons and jokes, a growing liberal-conservative culture war topic, and a business disrupter. For “boba” bubble tea sellers, the problem is serious enough to be tagged as a “crisis.”

Bubble tea is the only beverage where the straw is part of the basic design of both the drink and the drinking experience. That begins with the tapioca balls at the bottom of the cup. These can be sucked up only through a wide straw, typically ¾ inch, with a diagonal cut at the end to punch through the (plastic) seal on the lid of the cup. Alvin Yu, the co-owner of SF’s Steep Creamery and Tea summarizes it: “Boba is just, in general, an expression…. You have the tapioca pearls, but you also have aloe jelly, you have these herbal teas that we make ourselves. And it all requires a straw.” There’s a convenience factor. The seal lets the drinker shake up the rich mix of liquid and pearls, with no spills.

Bubble tea aficionados respond strongly to the idea of drinking bubble tea without a straw. “It’d be really hard. I think I’d have to pour a cup and use a spoon or something.” “Nobody wants to do that when you’re walking and it’s cold outside. You know, you just want to sip it with a straw.” “Part of the experience of drinking boba is poking a sharp end of a straw through the plastic seal of a cup.” “It’s a tradition that has been cemented into the bubble tea experience.”

The jokey and culture war part of the ban is the stereotype of San Francisco as flaky and leftish. Cartoons show a little girl running from a policeman built like a tank and armed like one – “but I just wanted it for my juice box!” There’s the emblematic self-portrait of an Amazon-class lady holding a semi-automatic in one hand and plastic cup and straw in the other: “Hey, GOVERNMENT, you can’t take my AR-15, so what makes you think you can take my plastic straw?” The jokiness is encouraged by Santa Barbara’s announcement of draconian penalties, now being reconsidered: up to a $1,000 fine per straw and six month’s jail. “California snowflakes!”

Bubble tea is just a small part of the plastic issue. The big picture of environmental damage is horrifying. China is estimated to release to the oceans 8.8 million metric tons of plastic a year. Four other Asian nations add about the same in total. The U.S. figure is small by contrast, 0.3 million, but still very substantial. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch that lies on a straight line halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii is a solid clump, 80% plastic, twice the size of Texas.

The little picture is less dramatic but still concerning. Each day 500 million straws are used once and thrown away. They take up to 200 years to decompose. They are the 11th most commonly found ocean trash. Their size and shape make them a disproportionate life threat for birds and turtles.

Critics of the ban argue that it is overkill and ineffective. Straws amount to 0.02% of all the plastic dumped in oceans. The U.S. is directly responsible for just 1% of the total.

There seem to be three fairly certain conclusions to draw from the headlines and detailed reports.

Conclusion 1: This is just the start

The bans are a signal of change and they will increase. As with plastic shopping bags (1 trillion per year, fewer than 1% recycled, used for an average of just 12 minutes), a combination of social pressures, local regulation and finally national legislation will over time end standard plastic straw usage. There’s no plausible scenario for growth. The pressure is mainly through petitions to companies like Starbucks, where an online initiative generated 150,000 signatures. The issues behind the logic of the ban are emotion-laden. This may be why, consciously or otherwise, a small component of the general plastics debate has been raised to prominence. Plastic pollutes. Plastic straws kill.

Conclusion 2: the supply needs will be met soon

The supply problems are mainly short-term and will be resolved well within a year. The bans have almost all been announced well ahead of their full implementation. This is already fueling innovation. The ones most relevant to the bubble tea crisis include “marine-friendly” seaweed-based straws that start composting like other foods in just a day. New paper straws are targeted to the special demands of bubble tea.

The two immediate problems are long supply backlogs for the new items, generally around four months, and cost. Today’s straws are 1-3 cents each and paper ones 7-9. At the top end of the market are reusable, collapsible personal metal straws, that come with their own carrying case… $20. (These are selling well enough for one producer to complain of over 200 listings on major online sites for counterfeits at $10.) Shatter-proof glass straws ($6) and bamboo ones ($2) get high buyer ratings on Amazon.

Conclusion 3: bubble tea prices will increase a little

Bubble tea will cost a little more. It seems unlikely that, once they are made in volume, replacement straws will cost even 20 cents extra on a per unit basis. Some of San Francisco’s 200-250 bubble tea stores use two million per year. At just 10 cents a straw, a likely figure, that amounts to $200,000. So, this is not a trivial increase and it is certainly a disruption and source of uncertainty.

Now, moving on, how about those single-use Japanese wood chopsticks and the deforestation they directly cause?