A month after San Francisco passed a citywide plastic straw ban in July, brothers Alberto and Pablo Hernandez opened a boba tea shop on 24th and Mission. At the bottom of boba beverages sit chewy tapioca balls, that drinkers of the popular beverage suck up using wide plastic straws. The new law presented a problem for the brothers’ new business, Identitea.
“We are trying to remove the plastic straws from the store as soon as possible,” Alberto said.
San Francisco is one of the only cities in the United States to ban plastic straws. In the coming year, California will become the first state to prohibit restaurants from offering customers plastic straws when AB 1884 goes into effect January 1, 2019. The bans were spurred by the growing amounts of plastic waste found in oceans. Five trillion plastic pieces—including plastic straws—are floating in the ocean, according to one study.
“Sometimes you need a change in the law to spark a change in the industry,” said Supervisor Katy Tang, who came up with the idea for the ban after realizing that people use plastic straws just once before throwing them away.
Though well-intentioned, the ban is creating challenges for hundreds of San Francisco businesses that rely on plastic straws to sell their products. The law sent boba tea stores, as well as juice bars, coffee shops and restaurants scrambling to find alternatives before the city’s July 1, 2019, deadline.
At La Cumbre Taquería on 16th Street and Valencia, the restaurant is organizing a meeting next week to decide what they’ll replace place straws with. The owner is also offering employees the chance to take a recycling course to learn more about how to help the environment.
At Mercado Brasil, a Brazilian market and café at 24th and Valencia, restaurant owners said they are used to adapting to new demands — like customers who request paper cups, not plastic.
But straws pose a new challenge: “I have to start buying paper straws, but they are way more expensive,” she said.
San Francisco-based Eco-pliant is one of just a few U.S. companies that makes paper straws. Eco-pliant CEO Jimmy Lyons said he expects business to pick up as the date of the ban implementation nears.
Eben Schwartz, who manages marine debris for the California Coastal Commission, said the ban will likely be as effective as the 2014 California ban on plastic bags, which helped reduce bag waste along the California coast from 8.7 percent of all coastal waste in 2015 to 1.2 percent in 2017, according to data from Coastal Clean Up day.
“That is a huge drop,” Schwartz said.
At Boba Guys, another boba tea shop on 19th Street and Lexington, 10-year-old customer Pomaikai Bohannan said she uses wooden straws at home. She also offered another alternative to plastic straws for Boba drinkers: a spoon.
At Identitea, the Hernandez brothers decided to ask their customers what they wanted in place of plastic straws. The response: reusable ones. So, to satisfy their customers, they turned to their uncle in Taiwan to help them produce their own branded, brightly-colored stainless steel straws. For now, they plan to sell them for $3.75 a piece — and each straw will come with its own cleaning brush.
And yes, Pablo said, they expect customers to bring their own straws every time they come.