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Taiwan’s Gift to the World: Bubble Tea, and the Plastic that comes with it

No modern habit symbolizes Asia’s modern convenience culture quite like Bubble Tea, and the plastic innovation that made it possible.

Photo of Brian Blankinship

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Picture Asian tea culture. What do you see? Rows of manicured tea bushes in orderly rows high in the mountains? Some meditatively quaint teahouse with people sitting on mats on the floor? 

That's probably what I pictured before I came to live in Taiwan. In reality, tea is an everyday ritual, not just a ceremonial one. And that habit is creating 1.5 billion disposable cups each year* just in Taiwan alone. 

So I set out across Taipei to better understand the needs of Bubble Tea shop owners and their customers to better understand why this packaging is so successful. I also talked to a recycler to find out what happens to all the plastic once we throw it in the trash. 

Fast, reliable, and convenient for customers and shop owners

First, I wanted to take a look at what happens behind the counter at the ubiquitous roadside tea shop, to better understand what operators of stands like these need to run their business and deliver quality product to their customers. 

  • Reliability is a key concern for shop owners attempting to generate high turnover. The automated sealing machines provide a solution that works nearly every time and creates a high-strength seal. It works even in the high-speed, crowded environment of the tea shop back room.
  • Customers are satisfied with the packaging in the current form. It allows people to carry their drinks with them on their scooter, as they walk, and even on the Taipei Metro (which is notorious for its strict enforcement of anti-food and drink policies!).
  • This is a regular treat for people in Taiwan. As tea has grown in popularity around Asia and the world, this packaging has gone with it.

Recyclability is all about creating value

Next, I wanted to see what happened to all that plastic packaging after disposal. Taiwan is often touted as a recycling world leader through nightly, in-person pickups. On the other end of the process, I wanted to understand what customers – plastic manufacturers – were looking for in secondary (recycled) plastics. 

To find out more, I took a short trip outside of Taipei City to meet the people who return our trash to something valuable. 

The most common types of disposable drink cups in Taiwan are the PP cup, the EPS cup, the PLA cup, and the paper cup* – many different technologies for many different uses. Each technology has its own challenges in production, distribution, and recycling. 

Final thoughts

What do you think about film seals as part of disposable cups? Are they an improvement on other types of packaging like lids and bags? Is it confusing you when you go to recycle  cup? Leave your story in the comments below. 

*Data from “Environmental Impact and Carbon Footprint Assessment of Single-Use Cups” July 20, 2016

How does this research relate to our Use Cases?

Somewhere between a drink lid and a seal, this drink film has transformed the way many disposable drinks are packaged. To understand if there was a better alternative, we first have to understand how it became so popular, and why it presents such a challenge in the new plastics economy. It's especially important in a cultural context, as this packaging thrives in one of the world's fastest growing regions.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Breakthrough products – like the bubble tea seal – are so prevalent because they solve real problems for real people. As we think about ways to redesign plastic packaging, how can we add value for users while keeping garbage out of the oceans?

Tell us about yourself

My name is Brian Blankinship, and I’ve been living and studying in Taiwan over the past two years. I’ve teamed up with Taipei-based designers Eddie Chang and his team whose Vitality Design unites brand experience with sustainable technology to turn product use into product engagement.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Tzu-Hsuan Lee

Hi, I'm from Taiwan, living in Sydney currently. I think more and more Taiwanese are bringing the reusable bubba tea cup and straw set idea into the community to minimize the use of plastic and to protect our lovely planet. We all know that doing recycling is not going to solve the problem. Only STOP using and making more plastic can really make it work. Please spread that idea to let more people know how to save our planet. Thank you.

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