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.
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