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A city garbage can is overflowing with food packaging including a bubble-tea cup.

Plastic-straw ban forces bubble-tea businesses to experiment

Bubble-tea businesses are grasping to find solutions so customers can continue to slurp up tapioca pearls

By Carol Eugene Park , in Feature story Life , on October 25, 2018

A customer drinks bubble tea out of a straw, which is important to the experience. (Ayesha Siddiqi)

In anticipation of the ban on plastic straws coming to Vancouver in 2019, city bubble-tea businesses are grasping to find solutions so their customers can continue to slurp the tapioca pearls essential to this beverage.

Some business owners are opting for reusable straws made of glass or steel, while others say they are listening to customers’ ideas for potential alternatives in the wake of the city’s decision to eliminate plastic.

“All bubbletea drinks will have to use either a stainless straw, glass straw. I think there’s bamboo straws out there as well too. They’re just going to have to adapt if you want to enjoy bubble tea the same way that you used to,” said Ivanna Chan, the owner of The Bubble Tea Shop in Olympic Village. “I honestly can’t think of any other options how to drink bubble tea. It actually is a dilemma.”

The plastic-straw ban is part of the city’s zero-waste strategy for a greener city by 2040. Plastic straws currently make up three per cent of Vancouver’s shoreline litter, and, while bubble tea straws are just one contributor, shop owners like Chan say they can “see how much waste there is.”

University of British Columbia law student Charlie Shi drinks bubble tea once or twice a week. Since childhood, he grew up drinking bubble tea and the beverage is a part of his cultural identity as an Asian man living in Canada.

Shi believes that the straws are a vital component to the bubbletea experience.

“If you are to have an addition to the tea itself, whether it’s some sort coconut jelly or pearls, you probably need the straws to drink it,” said Shi. “To be honest, I’ve never tried bubble tea without a straw, so I would say, in my experience, it’s been part of the bubble-tea experience.”

A greener city doesn’t mean no more bubble tea

Although the plastic-straw ban is an effort by the city to be more sustainable, bubble-tea enthusiast Moira Wyton argues that blaming people’s uses of plastics offloads the responsibility from corporations onto small businesses and consumers.

A city garbage can is overflowing with food packaging, including a bubble-tea cup.

Since the ban was first announced on June 5, 2018, business owners have discussed possible alternatives to plastic straws with their suppliers. Josh Yim, owner of Passion Tearoom at the corner of Howe and Nelson streets, said that a provider gave him paper straws to test out.

For the moment, paper straws are the most popular alternative, but they cost two to three times as much as conventional plastic straws. Moreover, customers struggle to slurp the pearls since the bubbles may stick to the paper lining. That could even keep the compostable straws from deteriorating due to the wetness.

Some business owners are also exploring straw alternatives like glass and steel that minimize the disruption of drinking bubble tea. But even if customers remember to bring their own reusable straws, this could pose sanitation problems if the straws are not properly cleaned between uses.

For business owners like Chan who plan to offer reusable straws, customers will have the option to clean their straws in store or take them home in cloth bags to prevent messes.

With the ban fast approaching, it looks like bubble-tea enthusiasts may be forced to reimagine the way the beverage is consumed. While some customers support reusable straws, others are hesitant to make this change.

“Bubble tea is a fun, spontaneous thing,” said Wyton. “I wouldn’t necessarily just carry my straw with me because I don’t have it everyday. I don’t plan my bubble tea.”