Making Boba Tea Sustainable

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

Reuse is the key to plastic-free boba tea. Photo by Daniel Elbaz

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

Many boba tea shops are willing to fill up your reusables…you just have to ask. Photo by Daniel Elbaz

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: 


April 22 , 9:00 am April 28 , 10:00 am EDT

Since Earth Day was founded in 1970, students have been on the forefront of change to protect our environment. Today, we face numerous environmental crises, from climate change, to air and water pollution, to the destruction of ecosystems critical to all life on Earth. That’s why Student PIRGs is organizing events across the country to call for bold action to protect our environment and public health.

Youth Earth Week is a project of the Student PIRGs. For nearly 50 years we’ve helped students to get organized, mobilized and energized so they can continue to be on the cutting edge of positive change.

Guest blog by Kareena Desai

Kareena Desai is a Plastic Pollution Coalition Youth Ambassador, age 11. She recently went on a trip to Switzerland & France and wanted to share her experience and highlight the effective ways both countries are reducing their use of single-use plastic.

Hi! I’m Kareena Desai. I am the founder and CEO of Perform For Change, a non-profit organization that raises money for important environmental causes through projects and performances. I recently went on a trip to Europe. On that trip, I saw many simple things that Switzerland and Paris, France, do to reduce the use of single-use plastic that we could also do in the United States, where I live.

While I was walking around town in Lucerne, Switzerland, there were vendors selling chestnuts. The chestnuts came in compostable bags that had little pockets where you could put the shells in and compost the whole bag later.

Kareena Desai Plastic Pollution Solutions European Adventure

In a window of a clothing store, there was a sign that said, “Be aware of what you wear” with a plant symbol next to it. It was nice to see that there were messages reminding people to be environmentally friendly with their clothing.

Plastic pollution solutions European adventure Kareena Desai

One day we went to eat at a cafe called Velo Cafe. They had reusable utensils in a reused can and napkins made from 100% recycled plant material.

On a train in Switzerland, there was a sign saying, “If you don’t preheat your oven you will save 20% of energy.” There were also water faucets that dispensed water and soap at the same time, saving 90% of the water you would have used to wash your hands! These types of signs and information were everywhere to remind people to do what they can to keep the planet healthy.

Plastic Pollution Solutions European Adventure 5

In Paris, France, at the Hotel Novotel, there was no single-use plastic at all used by the hotel! In each hotel room, they had reusable shampoo bottles. They also had shower caps in compostable packages that said “let’s act together to reduce plastic.” They also had completely compostable cups, and the room keys were also made from recycled wood! 

For breakfast, there was milk in glass jugs. All the fruits were in wooden crates, and you could cut them yourself with a reusable knife. There were condiments and yogurt in little glass containers along with a butter stick on a cutting board.

When you entered the hotel, there was a glass jug with water in it and little glass cups on the sides.

One place we visited in Paris, called the Shakespeare Cafe, had cups made from recycled coffee grounds.

At a park, they had compost signs and bins to help people compost in the right places.

In conclusion, I saw some really great and simple things in Europe that could help stop the use of single-use plastic in the U.S. as well. I hope that we can start to shift to some of those ways of doing things.

Find more plastic pollution solutions here

Plastic Pollution Solutions


September 20, 2022 , 2:30 pm 5:00 pm EDT

During Climate Week, join Plastic Pollution Coalition Youth Ambassador Xiye Bastida for a panel titled “The Climate Crisis We’re Already in: How We Can Accelerate Adaptation to a Changing Climate,” as part of the Clinton Global Initiative’s 2022 Meeting in New York City.

About: “Established in 2005 by President Bill Clinton, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) convenes global leaders to create and implement solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. To date, members of the CGI community have made more than 3,700 Commitments to Action that have made a difference in the lives of more than 435 million people in more than 180 countries. This September, for the first time since 2016, CGI will convene alongside the United Nations General Assembly. During this meeting, more than 1,000 attendees will come together to drive action on climate change, inclusive economic growth, health equity, the refugee crisis, and more.”

September 20, 2022 , 9:30 am 5:00 pm EDT

As part of Climate Week 2022, join Plastic Pollution Coalition Youth Ambassador Xiye Bastida for the panel “Conversation for the Future at the Global Futures Conference with youth leaders Sophia Kianni, founder and executive director, Climate Cardinals; and Natalia da Silveira Arruda, YouthMappers Regional Ambassador, Everywhere She Maps for Brazil and Colombia and PhD student. Moderated by Justin Worland, senior correspondent, TIME.

About the Global Futures Conference: “Co-convened by the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory™ at Arizona State University and the Earth League, GF22 will bring together members of the public and private sectors, scientists, youth and activists from around the globe to formulate a bold and actionable agenda to push the boundaries of discourse on what can and must be done now. This will not be a passive forum. It is an opportunity to shape the agenda for governments, corporations and multilateral institutions. Conference leaders will publish and promote a roadmap that outlines the far-reaching, crucial solutions developed at this conference–solutions that are simultaneously ambitious and achievable.”

In person at the Javits Center in New York City. Registration is now closed.

The Independent
May 19, 2021