By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Local food establishments are making the switch from plastic straws to compostable plastic or paper straws. The local plastic straw ban is part of a larger “Strawless in Seattle” campaign, headed by Lonely Whale to rid oceans and U.S. waste streams of plastic waste. Plastics pollution poses a growing problem for the environment. It contaminates waterways and local seafood, and causes illness and death in oceanic wildlife, like birds, whales, fish, and more.
Beginning July 1, businesses must switch to using compostable plastic or paper straws and cocktail picks. Since 2008, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) has worked towards progressively phasing out select plastic utensils and packaging, including plastic bags, spoons, forks, and polystyrene foam containers. Failure to comply with the food service ordinance may lead to a $250 fine. Ditching plastic straws, among the last utensils required to be replaced with compostable options, will make Seattle the largest metropolitan city to ban single-use plastic straws.
The move away from plastics in recent years have led companies like Eco-Products and Karat Earth to provide PLA (plant-based compostable plastic) one-time-use utensils and packaging for food establishments. However, the transition is challenging for bubble tea shops, where its signature straw is as crucial to the enjoyment of the product as the beverage itself. The sound of that gratifying pop, where the characteristic angled tip of a thick bubble tea straw punctures the firm heat sealed lid, signifies the start of a refreshing, sweet bubble tea experience.
Along with its angled tip, a classic bubble tea straw measures roughly 10.5-millimeters wide to accommodate large tapioca bubbles. The growth of the bubble tea industry has since led to the popularity of other toppings to fit through such a straw, including grass or ai yu jelly, flavored popping boba, pudding, and more.
Currently, Eco-Products has jumbo straws with appropriate widths for bubble tea, but without the angled tip required to break through the heat-sealed cups, which has become a standard for many bubble tea chains in the industry. The market has yet to catch up to the demands for PLA bubble tea straws, but local bubble tea shops must gear up for the switch nonetheless.
“For the environment, I think [the straw ban] is a good thing, but I wish we had more resources,” said Ian Chow, manager of Sharetea UW branch.
Chow is prepared to offer PLA compostable straws to customers in July, but admits the cost of these one-time-use straws will be five times more than the average cost of the plastic straws currently in use, excluding shipping. Available compostable options, like the bamboo or paper straws that Chow found from a general internet search is often catered towards home-use and not sold in large wholesale prices. While Chow says the city provided ample notice for the ban, the samples and brands they provide don’t apply to the needs of bubble tea. With Seattle being among the first major city to institute such a ban, Chow and other local proprietors must set the precedent in sourcing and utilizing compostable bubble tea straws at a time when the market for such products has yet to catch up to demand.
Sego Jackson, the Solid Waste Policy Liaison for SPU, admits to seeing the lack of options for bubble tea shops, particularly with the angle tipped straws needed to puncture heat-sealed lids.
“I’m advocating with other companies that this is a growing market. It’s happening all over the world right now. There’s no doubt that anybody producing PLA angled cut straws is going to have that marketplace,” said Jackson.
Dan, a manager of U-District based Kung Fu Tea who declined to give his last name, has been concerned about the transition and the lack of options.
“The city provided samples of paper straws that just didn’t work. The paper doesn’t hold up well and the boba gets stuck in the straw,” said Dan.
In terms of cost, he adds, stores would have to purchase a very large lot of straws with each order to balance out the cost, which would require more storage than stores like Kung Fu Tea could afford.
“We realize there is going to be a delay in being able to transition out of those [plastic straws] that are absolutely essential for those heat-sealed cups and we’re asking companies to do what they can,” said Jackson.
His hope is that such companies paving the way can find temporary solutions — using a tool to break the seal, for example, or using scissors to cut the ends of the PLA straws to create an angled tip — until companies like Eco-Products adapt to meet those demands.
Vivienne Pai, owner of the Moo Bar with locations in Northern California and Seattle, estimates she still has a couple thousand non-compliant straws which she might ship back to California to be utilized at other Moo Bar locations before July 1. Pai has been able to secure PLA bubble tea straws from Taiwan, reporting that Taiwanese producers are responsive to what they see as a growing need, but because the need is still exclusive to Seattle and select businesses, the Moo Bar would still be requesting PLA straws as custom orders, requiring that she order a large amount to be produced, shipped, and stored at a separate facility. But seeing the trend towards phasing out plastics, Pai has gone further to also designing branded glass mugs with hopes that customers might take to adopting reusable glass mugs they can bring back and use at Moo Bar for a discount.
The goal, said Jackson, is to work towards compliance as soon as possible. He encourages companies encountering difficulties to reach out and set up a compliance schedule and inform SPU of the steps they’re taking to try and meet compliance. While they are not providing waivers or exemptions to the rule, companies can work with SPU to extend their transition time, source compostable alternatives, and run out their current supply.
Companies are encouraged to have specifically marked trash cans for compost, trash, and recycling, and use signage and information provided by SPU to inform customers of how the straws and utensils currently in use should be disposed. The adjustment period will require transparency and teamwork between businesses and SPU, said Jackson, but at no point would bubble tea fans have to worry about using their last straw. By July 1, they would simply be using a different one.
Tiffany can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.