New Challenges to San Francisco Restaurants Serving Boba Drinks

Shops and restaurants selling boba tea in San Francisco will soon face a new challenge to their businesses from a ban on plastic straws, passed in 2018 by the Board of Supervisors. Starting on July of 2019, shops violating this new ordinance will face fines ranging from 100 to 500 dollars with each offense. In order to stay in compliance, finding an eco-friendly alternative to single-use plastic straws will be crucial for shops selling boba tea. Boba tea is a Taiwanese drink seeing an increasing popularity in US cities, and consists of a sweet tea filled with large glutinous tapioca marbles. Boba tea straws must be wide enough to allow the tapioca balls to pass through them, while also being sturdy with a sharpened tip capable of punching through a film secured over the top of the drink, which prevents spilling. The challenge for San Francisco-based shops selling boba tea is finding a biodegradable alternative to single-use plastic straws that meets all of these requirements.

San Francisco will only permit non-plastic alternatives such as bamboo, metal, or paper straws. Plant-based PLA plastic straws will be prohibited in San Francisco, as although they can be readily recycled, they are too small to be caught and sorted by the city’s PLA composting facilities. PLA plastic is also not safe for the waters surrounding San Francisco, as the cold temperatures prevent the material from biodegrading, making PLA straws just as harmful to marine animals as normal plastic straws. Reusable metal and bamboo straws are an alternative, however they are far more expensive to buy than single-use straws, and many tourists visiting San Francisco may balk at the prospect of spending as much as two dollars or more in order to enjoy their drinks. With metal and bamboo straws an expensive and likely unappealing prospect, and single-use PLA straws not being an option for boba drinks, San Francisco business will likely navigate to paper straws as single-use biodegradable alternatives. 

There are a handful of paper straw companies that offer boba straws wide enough to be used, however many of these straws do not come with sharp angled tips capable of piercing the container tops, meaning shops selling boba tea will need to spend the time and laborious effort of cutting the tips of each straw themselves. Cost will also be a concern, with most paper boba straws on the market today costing up to 19 cents a piece, adding a greater business expense to San Francisco businesses purchasing large quantities to keep up with customer demand in a competitive business market with high rent costs. As many of these local stores are family owned with far less wealth than larger franchise businesses, they may have no other option than to place the price of these biodegradable straws on their patrons. For eco-friendly straw producers, the challenge will be to offer small businesses in San Francisco with a paper straw that not only has all the capabilities they expect from a boba straw, but can also be manufactured and sold at an affordable price.

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