By Daniel Elbaz, PPC Intern
Like many teens, I love boba tea. The delicious drink has gained popularity with Gen Zers. Boba tea stores are practically our generation’s version of a fro-yo bar! So what is boba tea, where did it come from, and how did it get so popular?
Boba tea, or bubble tea, is made with a tea base, tapioca pearls (boba), brown sugar, condensed milk and sometimes fruit, served cold. This sweet drink was popularized in the early 1980s in Taiwan, where it was apparently invented by mixing tapioca balls, a Taiwanese dessert, with milk tea, which has long been consumed in Taiwan. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, boba tea became very popular across East Asia, especially in Taiwan and China. In the 1990s, bubble tea arrived in the United States via Taiwanese immigrants, first in California then spreading to the rest of the states.
Teens Love Boba Tea—But Not All the Plastic
Boba tea has become quickly popular because it’s a fun, colorful, and refreshing drink, with a unique combination of tastes and textures: earthy tea, creamy condensed milk, and chewy tapioca balls. Additionally, most boba tea shops offer countless flavor combinations to choose from, including different varieties of teas, boba, and fun toppings such as lychee jelly, oreo, or fresh fruit. The multitude of options allows everyone to customize their drinks to their tastes and preferences. Lastly, going to boba stores has become a trendy social activity because people enjoy trying new boba shops together with friends, family, and other boba enthusiasts.
The popularity of boba tea is huge—and still growing. By some estimates, there are around 3,600 boba shops in the United States. Worldwide, the bubble tea market size is valued around $2.75 billion (USD). This number is expected to continue to grow as it has over the past twenty years, and it is estimated that by 2030 the market size will almost double. If those numbers alone don’t prove that boba tea’s popularity has infected the globe, a survey has shown that 94 percent of people in their twenties have bought boba tea in the past three months.
However, whenever I feel like getting boba tea, I also feel a bit guilty. This is because these drinks almost always come in single-use plastic cups with plastic lids and plastic straws. The huge size of the boba tea market underscores the importance of reducing its plastic footprint.
One day I wondered: Could it be possible to enjoy boba tea without all the plastic? With some ideas in mind, I decided to explore more sustainable approaches for buying boba tea.
How to Drink Boba Tea Sustainably
My strategy for making plastic-free boba tea focused on reuse. First, I found a few large mason jars, and bought lids made with a boba-straw sized hole. Boba straws are wider than typical straws to accommodate the tapioca balls that give boba tea its name. Additionally, I purchased a pack of boba-sized stainless steel reusable straws. The combination of the mason jar, lid, and straw would substitute the single-use plastic cups, lids, and straws boba that tea shops typically distribute.
My next step was to take to the streets and search for boba shops in Los Angeles, California. When I found shops, I asked employees whether they could serve me their boba in my reusable cups. By the end of the process, I visited a total of twelve boba tea shops. Out of those twelve stores, only five of them agreed to serve their drinks to me in my reusable cups, while seven stores refused to serve me in anything but single-use plastic.
There seems to be a lack of consistent policies around accepting reusable cups at most of the boba shops. I called different locations of some of the biggest chains across the United States (such as Gong Cha, Kung Fu). These stores all seemed to have differing answers on whether they would accept reusable cups, which means that there is inconsistency even within chains. A number of shops also stated they would make the boba in a plastic cup, but they would pour the drink into my reusable cup, which obviously defeats the purpose of going reusable. (Note: In California, bill AB619 was passed in July 2019, which allows reusable food containers to be refilled by a food facility or a consumer.)
A pattern emerged among the bubble tea stores that served me in my reusable cups: they all initially mixed the drink in a reusable stainless steel or glass cup, then poured it into the cup they gave to customers. This means shops’ method of serving drinks is actually rather sustainable and could easily allow customers to bring their own cups.
Thank you to the five stores that allowed me to use reusable cups: Just Boba Tea House, Teaspoon, Volcano Tea, Ume Tea, and Redstraw Tea Bar. Teaspoon, Volcano Tea, and Ume Tea all sold their own reusable cups. Volcano Tea on Sawtelle Boulevard even upgraded the size of drink for free from a medium to a large for bringing a reusable cup. Find more reuse/refill shops, cafes, and eateries on these maps from Plastic Free Future and EcoRate.
Bring Your Own Cup and Help Create Change
While many of the boba shops I visited or called seemed to be at a loss for how to serve me using a reusable cup, I witnessed that if customers demand plastic-free solutions, boba shops could easily accommodate reusables.
It’s easy to find reusable boba cups (I found reusable, plastic-free boba cups at various online and brick-and-mortar retailers). Please join me in visiting your local boba store with a reusable cup.
Plastic Pollution Coalition would love for boba shops that accept reusable cups from home, or sell their own reusable cups, to join their coalition. Please help our efforts by commenting with names of stores you know and love that engage in these plastic-free practices.
Ordering boba tea in reusable cups was an easy way for me to feel good instead of guilty about one of my favorite drinks. By joining me in this movement, you can fully enjoy your favorite boba tea too.
If you’re an employee or owner of a food or drink business, we encourage you to visit our Plastic Free Eateries page to find actionable steps, resources, and strategies for going plastic-free. Once you’ve taken action to eliminate plastics, please reach out to join our Coalition!
For individuals and organizations committed to ending plastic pollution: