The Last (Boba) Straw: Implications of San Francisco’s Plastic Straw Ban


Milk tea with boba (Lauren Saria).


Since its arrival in San Francisco in the 1990s, boba milk tea has experienced a steady rise in popularity. The drink, which is known for its signature chewy pearls and thick plastic straw, is served at more than 300 locations around the city.

In recent months, however, plastic straws have become the top target of the environmentally conscious. From Seattle to  San Luis Obispo, cities are adopting progressive laws that ban the use of plastic straws. The newest of these bans was passed unanimously last month by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors at a preliminary hearing; if the law is passed again and signed by the mayor, it will go into effect July 1, 2019. While protecting the environment is typically an easy commitment for Bay Area progressives, finding an alternative to plastic straws poses a great challenge for the area’s beloved boba shops.

The ordinance has raised concerns amongst the entire food service industry, but the concerns of boba shops are particularly warranted, as boba milk tea can only be consumed with a straw. Shops in the city are struggling to find an alternative to thick plastic straws, but have quickly realized that alternatives are costly. The chain Boba Guys, for example, currently pays only 3.5 cents per plastic straw and upgrading to silicone or metal reusable alternatives would cost around $1 per straw.  It is important to note that Boba Guys actually supports this measure, stating that it falls in line with their commitment to sustainability. But costs aside, many of these environmentally friendly alternatives lack the size and angled tip to accommodate boba. A promising alternative currently being developed is the Lollistraw, a biodegradable and edible straw. But any alternative will cost more than the original, mass-produced plastic straw a cost that will likely be passed on to consumers. If consumers think they can easily avoid the ban without consequence, they should note that violating the ordinance can result in a $100.00 fine.

Despite the increased cost to businesses, supporters of the ordinance claim that this ban is necessary to reduce litter on the streets and plastic pollution in the ocean. Advocates of the ban, such as the World Conservation Society, deem the ban necessary for protecting the environment, making the claim that “at the rate we’re polluting, there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish by 2050.” Another claim cited by advocates is that “everyday more than 500 million straws are thrown away in the US.” However, this claim is disputed by market research firms, which estimate the actual number to be between 170 and 390 million straws per day.

The reason plastic straws are being targeted is due to their inability to be recycled. According to one San Francisco supervisor, “it’s not possible to recycle tiny plastic items because they literally fall through the cracks of machinery at processing plants.” Ocean Conservatory, a marine environmental advocacy group, has found plastic straws to be the 7th most collected piece of trash during its beach cleanups. These straws have the potential to injure or kill marine life, as can be seen in a a viral video from 2015 in which a marine biologist attempts to extract a straw from a sea turtle’s nose. However, this pollution can have even more sinister consequences for marine life: a recent study found that the chemicals released by degrading plastic have contributed to the death of coral reefs.

Thanks to renewed energy from environmental advocacy groups, including the #StopSucking social media campaign, ditching plastic straws has suddenly grown in popularity. Taiwan, where boba shops first originated, plans on eliminating plastic straw use in schools, department stores, and the public sector by 2019 and all plastic straw use by 2025. The plastic straw ban is actually only the first stage in Taiwan’s plan to ban all single-use plastic bags, straws, and cups by 2030. New York City is also considering a similar ban on plastic straws. Cities are not the only entities taking part in this new trend either. Starbucks has announced its plans to phase out plastic straws with recyclable lids for most of its drinks and compostable paper straws for its frappuccino beverages.  

As boba shops weigh their options, from compostable paper straws to reusable metal straws, boba enthusiasts must decide whether protecting the environment is worth the likely increased cost and decreased convenience.

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