Jocelyn Shieh of San Jose stirs her fresh milk black sugar boba tea with a plastic straw at Black Sugar Boba on O’Farrell Street. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The last straw

Businesses say goodbye to plastic disposables as ban takes effect

The 2019 San Francisco Pride Festival marked the last week San Franciscans could get a drink served with a plastic straw.

Retail stores, boba shops, restaurants and bars are required to get rid of them, along with plastic beverage plugs, sticks, stirrers and toothpicks, by Monday, when the “Plastics, Toxics, and Litter Reduction Ordinance” takes effect.

Businesses objected to the change when Supervisor Katy Tang first introduced the legislation last year, citing the higher cost of alternatives. Plastic straws can cost a penny apiece, while paper straws can cost six times more.

“We are annually blindsided by increasing costs. It’s hard to adjust when you are a family-operated business,” said Sam Abbassi, owner of several retail stores in the Civic Center and South of Market areas.

Since then, however, many have found ways to make the switch from plastic straws to paper or other alternatives.

Josh Harris, the owner of Les Bons Vivants, Trick Dog and Bon Voyage, said he eliminated single-use plastic straws before the law was passed last June to be “a better steward for the environment.”

Harris eliminated straws in many drinks.

“I believe some people may enjoy the feeling of drinking through plastic straws. We believe they are now more open to the alternatives because everyone recognizes the commitment necessary to help the community,” said Harris.

He also switched to hard plastic reusable straws for “straw testings,” a technique where the bartender covers the straw end with an index finger to create suction. Some nights, Harris’ bartenders straw-taste more than 200 drinks.

Andrew Chau, the owner of Boba Guys, provided industry and cost structure feedback to Supervisor Katy Tang, the law’s author, last year. He said his company introduced bamboo straws in early February.

Benny, owner of Black Sugar Boba Bar in the Tenderloin district, said new paper straws were delivered just last Thursday from a newly established San Francisco-based company.

Still, some are concerned that acquiring alternative straws could also soon become even more challenging. Starting January 1st 2020, single-use straws and all other compostable foodware will have to be certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI).

“You better want to get the BPI-certification,” said Chau.

The poor quality of paper straws, which have a short lifespan and tend to get soggy, is also a concern.

Abassi said the use of paper straws “devalues the quality of the product and hurts the brand” and he expects the switch from plastic to strawless lids to be hard.

But Harris, while acknowledging that customers expressed discomfort with the paper straws in the early days after the switch, said they are now widely accepted.

Still, not every business is ready for the change.

In ShareTea’s retail store in the Westfield San Francisco Centre, plastic straws were still being used as of Thursday.

The company sells 300 to 400 drinks on a slow day, 500 on a busy day and expects from 700 to 800 drinks during the coming week. Each drink is currently provided with a plastic straw.

Disabilities access

Disability advocates also objected to the law, arguing that eliminating straws would reduce access for those with physical disabilities that make drinking from a cup difficult. Many still fear it may do “more harm than good,” said Lawrence Carter-Long, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Director of Communications.

Language in the law states that straws “shall be made available by request only” from customers and allows plastic straws to be provided to those who need them to accommodate a physical disability or for medical reasons.

However, Carter-Long wants that “shall” to be turned into a “must.” Otherwise, he worries disabled people could become “second-class citizens.”

“People saying “Bring your own straw or ask for help” do not realize how difficult that can be. Would we ask non-disabled people to bring their own cutlery everywhere they go?” said Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project and a Mission District resident.

Disability advocates argue that the law should be focused on larger producers and consumers, like the fishing industry, rather than individuals.

“We don’t want environmentalists to be pitted against people with disabilities,” said Jessica Lehman, executive director of Senior and Disability Action.

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