AS VANCOUVER DEBATES JOINING A GROWING MOVEMENT TO BAN PLASTIC DRINKING STRAWS IT MUST ALSO CONTEND WITH A PROBLEM OF NOT PUTTING SOME VENDORS OUT OF BUSINESS — NAMELY BUBBLE TEA SELLERS.
Ban could suck the life from tea boom
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.