Fancy 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 they are only available in catering sizes. 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 composting 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 Tea* 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 and I’ve made a directory which you can find at the bottom of this article.
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. So please dust off your teapots, make yourself a brew, and get to work:
- contact Clipper on 0345 6021519 to ask them to remove plastic from their teabags, or have a look on your tea box to find the relevant info.
- Sign this petition to let the Soil Association know that it’s not OK to certify teabags containing plastics.
UPDATE: It’s been 6 months since making the switch to loose leaf tea, and I am happy to say I wouldn’t go back to teabags! I’ve bought a big bag of loose leaf tea from Steenbergs and love making my cuppa with it every day. I’ve had over 100,000 views of my teabag infographic on Facebook. The issue has been getting a lot of media coverage, and I’m proud to say my MP brought it up in parliament after I alerted her to the problem.
The Co-op supermarket has announced that they are switching their own-brand teabags to be plastic-free, and hope to have them on the shelves by the end of this year.
After over 230,000 people signed a petition to Unilever, PG Tips are also going plastic free (although they are going to be using a cornstarch based material instead which can come from genetically modified sources).
Garden Organic have agreed to change their composting advice too!
LOOSE LEAF: Steenbergs sell a wide range of Fairtrade organic loose leaf tea in bulk sizes. The bags are made from plastic but if you return them for recycling you will be given a 5% refund on your order. If you’re in Dorset or the Bath area, Comins Tea will sell loose leaf into your own container. Although they aren’t certified organic or Fairtrade, they work directly with single estates and some of their producers use biodynamic farming methods. Hampstead Tea* is Biodynamic and Fairtrade certified.
TEABAGS: If you’re looking for a plastic-free supermarket own-brand, Waitrose Dutchy Originals Organic Everyday* teabags are plastic-free, but do use plastic in the packaging.
* if you buy any items after clicking on a link with an asterisk, you will be supporting The Green Shopper blog through affiliate marketing at no extra cost to yourself.