Ban could suck the life from tea boom

Edmonton Journal - - NP - Dou­glas Quan

VAN­COU­VER • Ivy Hu emerged from a bub­ble tea ven­dor across from Van­cou­ver city hall this week clutch­ing two cups of the re­fresh­ing, cool bev­er­age filled with chewy tapi­oca balls — one honey green tea-flavoured, the other taro. She needed the sooth­ing brew after a painful trip to the den­tist.

Asked what she thought about a pro­posal by city staff — be­lieved to be the first in Canada — to ban the use of plas­tic straws, Hu said she wasn’t op­posed to the idea but then fol­lowed up with a ques­tion that is on the minds of many bub­ble tea afi­ciona­dos th­ese days as a global move­ment in­ten­si­fies to elim­i­nate the uten­sil.

“How do you drink (bub­ble tea) with­out a straw?” she asked. “Use a spoon?”

Im­pacts on small busi­nesses and con­sumers were a re­cur­ring theme Wed­nes­day as Van­cou­ver’s city coun­cil weighed a staff re­port that rec­om­mends a broad strat­egy for re­duc­ing sin­gle-use items that have be­come com­mon­place in our “grab and go” cul­ture. The most ag­gres­sive points of the strat­egy call for a ban on plas­tic straws, poly­styrene foam cups and take­out con­tain­ers by Novem­ber 2019. The strat­egy also calls for re­duc­tions in the use of plas­tic and pa­per bags and dis­pos­able cups.

As of late Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, coun­cil was still go­ing through a list of speak­ers and had not voted on the pro­posal.

Ac­cord­ing to the staff re­port, plas­tic straws are not eas­ily re­cy­cled as they of­ten fall through screens on re­cy­cling sort­ing lines and pose a dan­ger when in­gested by an­i­mals.

The re­port noted that some busi­nesses al­ready have adopted a pol­icy of pro­vid­ing straws only when re­quested by cus­tomers. “How­ever, cer­tain busi­nesses that rely on a par­tic­u­lar type of straw for their prod­uct (e.g. bub­ble tea shops) raised con­cerns about the im­pact on their busi­ness.”

Straw-ban pro­pos­als pose a par­tic­u­lar co­nun­drum for bub­ble tea ven­dors be­cause the drink, in­vented in Tai­wan decades ago, is tra­di­tion­ally con­sumed us­ing a plas­tic cup that is sealed on the top and a straw.

While al­ter­na­tives to plas­tic straws ex­ist, they pose some chal­lenges. Paper­based straws may not be durable enough to suck up the gelati­nous tapi­oca balls or “pearls,” as they’re known. Cer­tain biodegrad­able straws are re­port­edly too nar­row to slurp up the pearls. And stain­less steel or metal straws are costly.

Cur­rently there are no vi­able mar­ket so­lu­tions that are eco­nom­i­cally fea­si­ble or pro­duced on a mass-scale, said Kevin Huang, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Hua Foun­da­tion, a lo­cal non-profit that was tapped by the city to help gather feed­back from small busi­nesses.

Any sug­ges­tion that bub­ble tea ven­dors start ask­ing cus­tomers to sip bub­ble tea straight from a cup or spoon out their tapi­oca pearls would likely be a non-starter as the ha­bit­ual con­sump­tion method is to drink the tea and the pearls to­gether with a straw, Huang said.

Ask­ing cus­tomers to re­use their straws also poses dilem­mas, he said. Given that con­sump­tion of bub­ble tea of­ten hap­pens spon­ta­neously, is it re­al­is­tic to ex­pect that cus­tomers would carry their straws with them all the time?

And what hap­pens when you’re done with your straw? “Are you sup­posed to carry a sticky and wet straw?” he asked.

If the city ap­proves the ban, Huang said fur­ther con­sul­ta­tion with ven­dors will be crit­i­cal. The staff re­port says the city in­tends to do that.

In Toronto, where some restau­rants re­cently banded to­gether to launch a cam­paign to elim­i­nate the use of plas­tic straws us­ing the hash­tag #stop­suck­ing­Toronto, Shaun Leong, who owns a fran­chise store be­long­ing to The Al­ley bub­ble tea chain, said he is def­i­nitely con­cerned about the waste his store pro­duces but hasn’t found a suit­able al­ter­na­tive.

“Other drinks you can drink with­out a straw. With bub­ble tea it’s par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult,” he said. “We’re not re­ally sure where it’s go­ing to go if a ban was in­stalled.”

Per­haps, he said, the so­lu­tion will come from Tai­wan, which ear­lier this year an­nounced a sweep­ing, mul­ti­stage ban on sin­gle-use plas­tic straws, take­out cups and plas­tic bags by 2030, as part of a crack­down on marine pol­lu­tion.

Alex Jiang, B.C. gen­eral man­ager for the Sharetea bub­ble tea chain, said this week he won­ders if cus­tomers will be will­ing to break old habits. Straws and bub­ble tea go hand in hand like chop­sticks and Asian food, he said.

“It’s very hard to change it,” he said.

That said, Jiang said some pre­lim­i­nary dis­cus­sions have taken place with fac­to­ries in Asia to in­ves­ti­gate the pos­si­bil­ity of man­u­fac­tur­ing re­us­able cups and straws.

Emerg­ing from the Sharetea store this week, cus­tomer Gail Kakino said she’d have no prob­lem reusing straws.

Fel­low cus­tomer Nancy Ho said she’d be open to the idea, but on one con­di­tion: “If we bring our own straw, we’d have to get a discount.”


Bub­ble tea, which fea­tures chewy tapi­oca balls, could be hit by Van­cou­ver’s straw ban.

Bub­ble tea — with a spe­cial fat straw — at Sharetea in Van­cou­ver.

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