Made in Vancouver is a collaboration between Vancity and Daily Hive. Together, we’re turning the spotlight onto local businesses, organizations, and individuals who are helping to create a healthy local economy.
Carrie Lai loved bubble tea—what she didn’t like was all the single-use plastic packaging that came with it. She searched but couldn’t find a reusable bubble tea cup anywhere. After embarking on a low-waste lifestyle, Lai made the difficult decision to stop indulging in this sweet and tasty treat.
Her boyfriend, Derek Ho, thought there had to be something he could do to help Lai continue to enjoy bubble tea but in an eco-friendly way. He designed and created the prototype for the Reusable Bubble Tea Cup.
Other types of reusable tumblers were already widely available, but they featured skinny straws that were unable to accommodate the large, chewy tapioca balls in bubble tea. The skinny straws were also ill-suited for thick drinks such as smoothies and milkshakes. Lai was surprised that a large company hadn’t already invented a solution, especially since a ban on plastic straws was looming in Vancouver.
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Vancity has been supporting people in our communities since 1946, like local entrepreneurs. As part of our Made in Vancouver series spotlighting local businesses, we talked to Vancity member Carrie Lai about her company’s invention that makes drinking bubble tea more eco-friendly.
Lai told Daily Hive that the instant demand for their new product shocked both Ho and her.
“We were not prepared. There was no planning,” she said. “It was a handmade prototype that we made extras of and offered for sale on Facebook Marketplace. We didn’t expect our phone to blow up with 174 orders within the following 24 hours.”
To Lai’s delight, “the cute glass mason jar cups were easily accommodated by boba-ristas all around Vancouver and beyond. Thus, Reusable Bubble Tea Cup the company was born in August 2018.” It was even shortlisted for the 2020 Small Business BC Awards in the Best Innovation category.
In the three years since that initial prototype, the company’s offerings have expanded considerably. Lai explained, “You’ll find Reusable Bubble Tea Cups in four different styles and five different straw colours, as well as accessories like collapsible straws, straw bags and bamboo straw cases.”
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The company’s commitment to the environment doesn’t end with their products. According to Lai, “We take this value into every business decision and keep our products package-free wherever possible. We ensure our manufacturers do not use any plastic packaging for our supplies either.”
She continued, “When shipping, we never use any bubble wrap and have figured out a way to securely protect our glassware. We even use paper packing tape that can be recycled with the cardboard.” She described the company’s mentality as “refuse and reuse,” meaning they refuse plastic and reuse supplies such as cardboard boxes as much as possible.
This commitment to saving the planet is evident elsewhere in Lai’s life. She said, “We walk the talk. In our personal lives, we skip single-use plastics as much as possible. I think when you support a business, it’s important to see what the owners believe in on their personal time as well.”
But, Lai acknowledged, it’s a huge challenge to convince everyone to live in a more eco-friendly manner. She said, “One of the biggest hurdles to more people adopting a low-waste lifestyle is cost and accessibility. Disposable items tend to be cheaper and socially accepted as normal in urban cities.” The hope is that Reusable Bubble Tea Cup can help to normalize reusable products in the industry and make them more widely available. Lai said, “Whether the world is ready for it or not, sustainability is a hot topic everywhere, and reusable options are starting to pop up in every industry.”
She continued, “The bubble tea dessert drink has always been recognized by the colourful plastic straws with a pointed tip to pierce the plastic film sealing the top of the single-use plastic cup. However, garbage cans across every city are filled with take-out cups, coffee cups and plastic bags. Change needs to happen. Reusable options need to happen.”
There’s no denying Lai’s commitment to both her company and the environment. “I think what makes us keep going strong three years in is the fact that this is my passion. This product was made for me, and I truly believe in it, and I enjoy everything there is to do with it.”
One other factor strongly motivates Lai: “The fuel that gets me up every day, that makes me push towards my goals, that helps us land new retail partnerships, is my family.” Lai explained that her father deserted the family when Lai was just 17, leaving her mother with three children to support and no paid work experience after her marriage, many years before.
As the eldest child, Lai felt it was her duty to drop out of university and work 60-hour weeks to support the family. “The experience made me grow up really fast and learn to take comfort in long hours and hard work,” she said. “I don’t mind the grind, and the grind is what gets us going and going.”
When asked if she had any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, Lai immediately offered up words of encouragement.
“We live in a face-paced society that generally likes to be able to buy what they need and get it quickly, rather than slow down, shop around or learn to make it ourselves. So if you are a maker, and you can make something really well, even if it’s a simple concept that can be DIY’ed, and you’ve been wondering whether or not it will sell, we say go for it!” And, she added, no one should be daunted by not knowing how to actually run a business: “The practical side, like business registration, taxes, bookkeeping, insurance, etc., can always be learned.”
Reusable Bubble Tea Cup has continued to thrive over the past year, despite the many challenges of the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, the company offered in-person pickup times at several shopping malls throughout Metro Vancouver. When the pandemic brought such in-person meet-ups to a halt, that provided the necessary motivation for Lai and Ho to finally launch an ecommerce website.
At the end of the day, Lai hopes to make it as simple and straightforward as possible for everyone to avoid single-use plastics. She said, “We aim to make reusable products more easily accessible. Enjoy waste-free bubble tea!”
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To order your own glass tumbler, bamboo lid, stainless steel straw and more, visit www.reusablebbtcup.com. The site offers free shipping to Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond using the promo code VANCOUVER for orders above $25. You can also find Reusable Bubble Tea Cup products in more than 15 cafes, gift shops and zero-waste stores, mainly in Metro Vancouver but also across Canada. Follow Reusable Bubble Tea Cup on social media at @reusablebbtcup.