Oops! San Francisco Bubble Tea Company Throws Support Behind Straw Ban Without Realizing It Also Bans All Feasible Replacement Straws

Reading the fine print is important.



As businesses race to be the latest to abandon plastic straws, there are bound to be a few slip ups. Witness Boba Guys—a San Francisco-based boba tea chain—which threw its support behind the city's soon-to-be passed straw ban without realizing that the prohibition would also outlaw all viable replacement straws.

Unlike a lot of drinks, whose consumption is simply made more convenient with the addition of a straw, boba tea actually requires one. How else are you going to extract all those tapioca pearls at the bottom of the cup that give the beverage its name?

For this reason, boba tea shop owners have been leading the opposition to straw bans in places like Vancouver, British Columbia, where tea shop owners have said that the city's ban, passed in May, would be the death of their businesses.

Boba Guys decided to go the opposite direction and wholeheartedly endorsed San Francisco's proposed ban. In May, City Supervisor Katy Tang unveiled her new straw ban legislation at a press conference held at a Boba Guys store and with Boba Guys co-founder Bin Chen in attendance.

"We see this as a huge opportunity to lead the way on making sustainable business decisions," said Bin, as he and assembled city officials sipped the company's popular drinks using paper straws.

If only Chen had read the fine print.

Following the press conference, Boba Guys started hunting for replacement straws, eventually settling on ones made of polylactic acid (PLA), a kind of bioplastic derived from corn starch.

These straws are financially and functionally inferior to their traditional plastic brethren. They cost six times as much, fall apart in high heat (a problem for shipping overseas), and become brittle and unusable after 16 months of storage. Some bloggers have raised concerns about their effect on people with food allergies.

PLA straws do have environmental advantages. Because they're made from corn, they are compostable. Because they aren't derived from petroleum-based products, they reportedly break down faster in natural environments and are less toxic when they do.

For this reason, both Seattle's active straw ban and a proposed one in New York City (where Boba Guys has a location) exempt PLA straws. Unbeknownst to Boba Guys, however, San Francisco's pending ban does not.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, when Boba Guys co-founder Andrew Chau called up city hall to relay the good news that the company had snagged replacement PLA plastic straws, he was told those too would not work out. To make matters worse, the Chronicle reports, there are currently no commercially available alternatives for Boba Guys.

The company Aardvark does make suitable paper straws, but it reportedly has a huge backlog and will not be able to supply Boba Guys with straws in time. Two other potential alternatives, including one made of a seaweed plastic, are in the works, but neither will be ready in the quantities needed by Boba Guys (or the city's other boba merchants) by the time San Francisco's ban goes into effect in July 2019.

Judging by comments made by staff from San Francisco's Department of the Environment, no one has any intention of amending the city's straw ban to give the boba tea community a break. City officials instead have promised to gently roll out enforcement to give these companies breathing room.

The Boba Guys, for their part, have continued to support the city's impending ban, while stressing the need for nuance in thinking about ways to prohibit straws.

Of course, had the company wanted an appropriately nuanced approach to reducing its plastic consumption it could have adopted voluntary and feasible strawless policies. Instead it opted to endorse a government-imposed straw ban without doing its due diligence.