Put yourself anywhere in a big city in Vietnam. You probably won’t be more than a kilometre away from the nearest bubble tea shop. What appeared in the early 2000s as a niche after-school beverage for teenagers, dismissed at first as a fad, then criticised regularly for adverse health effects, has gone on to become a staple drink for young city-dwellers. Bubble tea now appears in ritzy malls as well as on the carts of street vendors, showing no sign of fading away. And as campaigns to reduce single-use plastic from our consumption habits intensify, one cannot help but feel scandalised watching the plastic-bonanza at a regular bubble tea shop. A drink of bubble tea includes a plastic cup, a plastic film, and a plastic straw – one that sometimes comes with a plastic wrapping.
For the bubble tea business, plastic is not just about convenience, it is in fact a huge part of the customer experience. The bop sound that your straw makes puncturing the plastic film sealing the cup has come to represent the drink itself. While most people can drink just about anything without a straw, you definitely need one to suck out the tapioca balls. Now, as the U.S. and even Taiwan, bubble tea’s motherland, have passed bans on plastic straws, big chains are scrambling for alternatives.
Since bubble tea depends on the fast and hassle-free service, meaning you should be able to have your drink on the go and then just throw it away. For this business model, reusable options like metal, glass, or bamboo are far too costly. Some, such as Su Meletzki, zero waste practitioner and owner of vegan cafe, Green Around the Corner, believe that when consumption habits are so embedded, any change that takes work is reviled. “We can have take-away coffee in our own cups and clean them up ourselves, but somehow for boba tea that’s not good enough.”
Dao Quoc Thong, Virgin Cuisine’s owner, for a while sold bubble tea the regular plastic paired way. But after he learned of the detrimental effects, Dao stopped selling it entirely. Currently, he’s experimenting with delivering vegan milk in glass bottles and offering a free bottle for every ten empty ones. “I’m not making any profits off this. In fact, I have to shoulder some loss, but in the long run, I don’t want plastic in my business.” He still plans on returning to bubble tea some day. “Now I’m running a delivery business so I can’t afford the metal straws, but when I have a physical shop, I will use them. Why can’t we treat straws like any other cutlery? We don’t throw away spoons or knives after a meal. Why straws?”
It will probably be a long and hard road before straws become just another type of cutlery. Meanwhile, the overlap between environmentally mindful folks and bubble tea fans don’t think one should have to choose between refusing plastic and the drink. With the rise of alternative, eco-friendly options from Zero Waste Saigon, Organik House- Go Eco, Green Around the Corner, and even Miniso, the single-use plastic straw is slowly fading out in Vietnam. The good news is that a good number of large chains such as Phuc Long, Tenren, Koi The, and Gong Cha do accept pouring drinks into reusable receptacles provided by customers. The bad news is that your barista will most likely still use a plastic cup to measure the portion and then throw it away, which defeats the whole purpose of reusable cups. “There is no policy in place regarding single use plastic,” an employee of Ding Tea claims.
There’s still the prospect of viable single-use alternatives. Loliware, an American start-up, is developing compostable cups, straws, and cover films, including seaweed-based cups and edible straws. It has been recommended by Taiwanese EPA minister, Lee Ying-Yuan, as a solution for the island’s 2020 plastic-free goal. Dao Quoc Thong himself floated the idea of pasta straws, which have low prices and the necessary sturdiness to puncture the cover film as well as let customers suck up the tapioca balls.
“Maybe we could get many shops to join in the initiative and order around a million straws,” Dao suggested. With no real legislative push to replace plastic straws in Vietnam, it’s a far-fetched idea. Still, following Taiwan’s journey to replace plastic straws, one has cause for hope that the bubble tea businesses in Vietnam will soon embark on a similar path.