The Compost Catastrophe or A Teeny Tiny Storm in a Teacup

Teacup under a storm cloud, with a crossed out recyclingFancy a cuppa? Do you take milk and sugar? How about a sprinkling of microplastic particles? When I recently heard that some teabags contain plastic, I thought to myself ‘not mine — ​I only buy Fairtrade, organic, unbleached paper teabags ‘. So, when our local health food shop told me that the Clipper brand teabags we’ve drunk for years contain a plastic layer, I just didn’t want to believe it. After studying the box carefully and finding no mention of plastic, I headed straight to the Clipper website to find out some facts.

Clipper are very keen to shout about their many ethical credentials, but it took a bit of searching to confirm the bad news. Hidden in the Frequently Asked Questions section under ‘Can Clipper Tea Bags Be Composted?’ is the awful truth: “In our opinion the tea bag paper we use is suitable for home composting. Square “pillow” bags do have a very thin layer of polypropylene plastic to enable the bags to be sealed, but in your compost bin this will break down into teeny tiny pieces.”

Excuse me, WTF? I do not want polypropylene in my teacup and I certainly do not want ‘teeny tiny’ pieces of plastic in my compost heap.

I called Clipper, who explained helpfully that some of their bags made with a string and tag system are plastic free, but were unable to say where I could buy them. When queried about what research they used to justify their composting advice, they have gone curiously quiet (despite a friendly reminder).

The environmental pollution caused by this irresponsible advice is potentially catastrophic. As well as tens of thousands of well-meaning granola-crunching hippies carefully composting their fairtrade teabags, council run food waste composting schemes encourage householders to compost their bags. With 165 million cups of tea drunk in Britain a day, that’s a whole heap of ‘teeny tiny’ pieces of plastic on their way into ​our soil and water​.

Although a few companies such as Hampstead Teas offer Fairtrade, organic black tea in bags made with the string and tag system, switching to loose leaf seems like the best option. The Ethical Consumer do a handy guide to the best teas which you can find here.

If you’re looking for a pot that isn’t too chintzy, ‘Stump’ tea-pots are a modern style classic, available in a range of zingy colours. You can even use the infuser directly into a mug. In-cup infusers are a good solution for our household, where tea preferences differ. I popped into our local loose leaf emporium who do a good range of infusers. Their ‘Strainer With a Handle’ is a perfect fit.

Well, that’s me sorted, but it is still important to raise awareness of this hidden issue to help make changes happen on a bigger level.

It seems a little rum that the Soil Association award their trusted certification symbol to teabags containing plastic. I’ve been reading through their policy documents and as it says in the ‘standards’ that certified products ‘… have been made to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards’ but this simply isn’t true for teabags made with polypropolene. Teabags can be made without plastics so that would surely count as a higher standard. Section 41.6.8 of their August 2016 Standards document states “To minimise the direct and indirect environmental impacts of your packaging during its life cycle, you must; minimise the amount of material used; maximise the amount of material that can be reused or recycled; and use materials with recycled content where possible.” Surely where teabags can be made using a string-and-tag system, this would mean that they should be in order to meet the requirements for organic certification.

I contacted the Waste Resources Action Programme charity WRAP  (who run the nationwide Love Food, Hate Waste and Recycle Now campaigns) to ask about their policy on composting teabags containing plastic and they recommended contacting your tea company with any queries directly. With even Garden Organic advising composting teabags it seems like we’ve got a long way to go until the problem is solved.

So please dust off your teapots, make yourself a brew, and get to work:









5 thoughts on “The Compost Catastrophe or A Teeny Tiny Storm in a Teacup

    • Hi Ben,
      I’ve just added a subscribe button in the bar on the right hand side. Apologies for the delay, I’m still a bit new to WordPress!
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    • It’s the compost thing that really got to me too! I was so upset to find that I’d been causing microplastic pollution without realising. I’ve been drinking loose leaf for six months now and I wouldn’t go back! It tastes so much better… although if you’re after affordable plastic free teabags I’ve just found out that Waitrose Duchy Originals Organic Everyday teabags are plastic free (but only the bags, not the packaging)

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