TEA BAGS

No, I can’t believe it either. Here we are in the middle of a pandemic and I’m writing about effing teabags, for heaven’s sake!

But I must write about them, because as far as I am aware, almost all teabags are made with one kind or plastic or another, and millions of teabags are chucked in the compost every day.

Just to give you an idea, the annual tea consumption in Ireland averages out at 4.831 POUNDS of tea per person, and here in Britain we’re not far behind, glugging down 4.281 pounds each every year. I personally make up for at least 14 non-caffeine drinkers, as I ADORE tea.

And it’s not just tea – think of all those little sachets of herbal teas! Millions and and squillions and gazillions of bags containing plant matter of one kind or another are disposed of daily. And they look as though they should decompose, don’t they?

Ay, there’s the rub.

Barry’s tea. Irish of course. Beloved by my Beloved.

How tea bags are made

There are various types of tea bags, but the most common is the pressed teabag – in other words, those square or round ones you’re most familiar with.

Here’s a great video from the BBC showing the manufacturing process – if you can’t be arsed to watch it, here’s the low down. Abacá, or Manila hemp, is mixed with water into a sludge. So far, so organic, if you forget about the air miles clocked up getting the hemp to the factory. Oh, and the millions of gallons of water.

This sludge is mixed with flock made from a specialist plastic which is rather like cotton wool. Then a layer of wood pulp is added, having been broken down by yet more uncountable gallons of water. This is to stop the teabag dissolving in your mug.

Finally, it’s dried at 100º and stretched to a fabric just 0.1mm thick. How on earth anyone dreamt it up in the first place is beyond me, but I admit it’s an impressive piece of technology so long as you don’t give a fig about the consequences.

Some of these tea bags use a staple to close the top of the bag but they still have a seam that needs sealing and that’s why they need plastic. The plastic is the seal.

Oh, and don’t forget that white tea bags are only white because the paper is bleached. Nice.

Silky pyramids

I had no idea how many different makes of tea were out this till I started researching. This was made from biodegradable corn extract and it’s so pretty I had to include it. Available from Madame Flovour.

The other type of tea bagis the silky pyramid and a lot of the more poncey teas use these. They’ve become increasingly popular due to the fact that they’re not full of the dusty old shite that inhabits many a teabag. You can actually see the contents and the quality tends to be higher.

The catch is that they’re rarely made of silk. It’s all a question of words… Silky just means “like silk” and this can mean that the teabag is either made of plastic or of what is called biodegradable plastic. And I will tell you more of this when we’ve gone through the process of…

…Heating plastic

Plastic has a very high melting point, so boiling water doesn’t melt it. But there is a second temperature called the “glass transition” temperature – this is far lower than the melting point. This is when molecules in polymers start to degrade. Just because you can’t see it breaking down don’t mean it ain’t happenin’!

Most teabags are made from PET or food grade nylon. PET’s long name is polyethylene terephthalate but don’t try saying that after three glasses of wine. The ‘glass transition’ temperature of PET is a great deal lower than boiling point. But we boil water for tea… so you can be absolutely sure that those polymers in your tea bags are not leaching molecules into your cuppa?

No, I don’t know what the glass transition rate of food grade nylon is, there’s only so much science I can take in without my head swivelling and my eyes starting from their sockets. But I do know that …

  • Micro- and nano-plastics are causing increasing concern for their long term effect on the environment and the food chain. It’s worth quoting Aussie businessman and marine ecologist Andrew Forrest again: Nanoplastics… the very, very small particles of plastic, carrying their negative charge, can go straight through the pores of your skin. That’s not the bad news. The bad news is that it goes straight through the blood-brain barrier, that protective coating which is there to protect your brain.”
  • According to a study published by the American Chemical Society, “steeping a single plastic teabag at brewing temperature (95 °C) releases approximately 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics into a single cup of the beverage”.
  • We now know that plastic never goes away. Even when it finally seems to disappear, the tiny nano plastics will always be plastic.

Is biodegradable plastic the answer?

Don’t get me wrong. Bioplastics are a huge improvement on petroleum based plastics, but they’re not without problems, and for all sorts of reasons.

  1. Biodegradable isn’t the same as compostable. Compostable means you and I can chuck it into that pile of grass clippings and it’ll break down. Biodegradable can mean all sorts of things – most bioplastics will ONLY degrade in the high temperatures of industrial composting facilities. There aren’t nearly enough of these, thus bioplastics frequently get sent to landfill. With the best will in the world, can you be certain that your biodegradable teabags will actually BE degraded?
  2. Some bioplastics (polyethene terephthalate or PET bioplastics) aren’t actually biodegradable. They are recyclable, but they will never become compost.
  3. Bioplastic MUST be disposed of properly – and this means separately. If it is mixed up with actual plastic it can contaminate a whole batch, rendering that batch unfit for use. This buggers up the whole recycling process. Then where does the batch end up? In our old friend, landfill, making methane. And when you carefully put your bioplastic interdental picks in the recycling, can you be certain the council dump has the kind of sophisticated machinery needed to sort it from the plastic tray that came with your strawberries?
  4. According to a study at the University of Pittsburgh, biopolymers are worse polluters than ordinary plastic, because of the use of agricultural fertilisers and pesticides. And of course, they take up land which could be used to feed people.
  5. According to the same study, “biopolymers exceeded most of the petroleum-based polymers for ecotoxicity and carcinogen emissions.”
  6. A corn starch teabag can still make its way to the sea and into the belly of a fish before it degrades, tricking the poor old fish into feeling full when it’s not. That’s how fish starve to death.

Even the admirable Clipper Teas who have tried so hard to green up, and who are very open about their packaging materials, use a biodegradable plastic called PLA (polylactic acid) to seal their teabags. Now PLA is not toxic – except during manufacture, and very few of us are exposed to that process. However, it has a very low glass transition temperature and I question whether PLA is as stable as we would like:  “even things like a hot car in the summer could cause parts to soften and deform“.

Hmm. A fresh brew is considerably hotter than a hot car!

But I cannot stress this enough. I am not a scientist, and I have to work very hard to get through some of these studies. I may get things wrong, and I welcome any contributions and information from people who genuinely understand these things.

Don’t say I don’t bust a gut researching for my readers. These fish shaped teabags are HAND SEWN and available from Etsy. 3 for £7.99 apparently it’s a motivational gift!

We can’t uninvent plastic…

…but we can stop using it when it’s not necessary. Tea bags are not necessary. If you drink actual tea, you can convert back to loose leaf tea just as soon as you’ve finished that last teabag. Same with herbal – there are plenty of loose leaf infusions on the market now.

Look on the bright side – loose leaf tea is almost always a higher quality. The stuff in teabags is usually dust and “fannings“.

You don’t need to worry about a gobful of leaves either. The greatest teapot ever invented is the Chatsford which has a handy basket thingummy to put the tea in. I bought mine 34 years ago in Scotland and the delightful lady said, “You’ll never have bad tea from a brown teapot” and she was right.

This is not my teapot, I snuck the pic from the Boulder Tea website because I couldn’t get a shot of my teapot without a silly reflection of me with camera… But this is the very model. Marvellous.

I’ve lectured enough. Time for a cuppa. Stay well, stay safe.

Meanwhile, apologies again for the long silence. I find it very difficult to get going in these strange times, and sometimes the science needed to write these pieces makes my head hurt.

Here she is!

My consolation. Miss Maris Piper Desirée Boulangère Keane O’Neill. Her mother was Chips, her Grandmother was Tayto. She comes from a long line of very distinguished tubers.

42 thoughts on “TEA BAGS

  1. Big problem this. A few months ago we decided to do loose tea only to avoid the plastic. Guess what? The tea in our cardboard box of Twinings Earl Grey was in a plastic bag inside the box. Grrrrr!!

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    • Of course it was… So frustrating when you’re trying to do the right thing! But luckily, there are lots of brands of tea out there and some of them are really trying hard to eliminate petroleum based plastics.

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  2. In my “Yoof” the tea in our house was “Sergeant Major Tea.” Ever heard of it? Originated from the theory that nobody drank tea with the Sergeant Major so it wasn’t worth the performance with the teapot. Instead, a teaspoon or two of leaf tea was put into a tea strainer and boiling water was poured through into the cup. If it was wanted a little stronger, the strainer was left on the cup with the tea in the water. You can get a respectable cup of tea that way. I have one of the finest instructions for making a ‘proper cuppa’ in the pages of Philip Harben’s Encyclopaedia of Cooking. Involves two tea pots, one brown enamel to brew the tea, and a preheated fancy pot for serving. Tea is wonderful! (Americans do terrible things to it though)

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  3. Loose tea is the way to go. PG TIps is good. Red Bush and other herbals are available loose. Tea leaves can be chucked straight from the pot to onto the garden

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  4. Good think I hate tea…builders, Earl Grey, Chinese, Indian, herbal…all taste like dishwater to me! Alas my partner drinks gallons of the stuff and I will have to re-educate her.

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  5. Thank you for an excellent post! My Breville tea maker is, along with the instant pot, the best thing (after myself, of course) in the kitchen. It has a cute little cage that contains and automatically dunks your tealeaves – up and down, up and down – into water that has been heated to just the right temp for your choice of tea. After a couple of minutes dunking, the cage retreats to the top of its little magnetic pole and prevents the tea from stewing. You can reheat the tea and it tastes as good as the moment it was first brewed. You can even set it to brew automatically so that it is ready – hot and delicious – when you get out of bed in the morning. It’s not quite as good looking as my lovely old brown teapot and knitted tea cozy, but it is practical and the leaves can be tossed into the compost without any palaver.

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  6. I stopped putting teabags in the compost years ago – but am STILL picking out shredded remnants from my pots and planters, sometimes with worms caught in them, which is just horrible. The first time you see that, it’s enough to make you never dispose of a teabag carelessly again.

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  7. Serendipitously I was placing my grocery order shortly before reading your blog. You’ll be pleased to know that I had ordered loose Earl Grey tea because of my concern about tea bags.

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  8. Ok Dillie, I’ll try, as I too am an avid tea drinker and responsible for even more tea being drunk over the last few months. I do own a tea infuser for making loose leaf tea in a mug. I will buy it some more loose leaf tea to play with.

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  9. Clipper Tea sells tea bags without any plastic that are fully compostable. You can buy them in most (?) supermarkets. If your supermarket doesn’t have them then ask them to order.

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    • Thanks Geoff, but there are a few corrections needed here – I wonder did you have time to read the piece in full, it is a little long. Here’s my quote about Clipper Teas. “Even the admirable Clipper Teas who have tried so hard to green up, and who are very open about their packaging materials, use a biodegradable plastic called PLA (polylactic acid) to seal their teabags. ” And this I add now from Clipper Tea’s own website. “Completely free of polypropylene. Sealed with PLA a bio-material from non-GM plant material.”

      Next, Clipper Tea bags are not compostable, and they don’t claim to be. They are biodegradable and I do explain that as well. Quick quote from my piece: “Biodegradable isn’t the same as compostable. Compostable means you and I can chuck it into that pile of grass clippings and it’ll break down. Biodegradable can mean all sorts of things – most bioplastics will ONLY degrade in the high temperatures of industrial composting facilities.” Have a look at their website. https://www.clipper-teas.com/about/our-sustainability/

      Finally, this is from Yogi Tea’s website, and this seems to be the most honest website I’ve found. ” “Our envelopes are also made of FSC®-certified paper, but unfortunately we have to use small quantities of plastic “for heat sealing”. This is very painful for us, but for reasons of quality and hygiene and the current state of technology and research, there is no other option. Even if other tea competitors may claim the opposite, we feel openness and transparency towards our customers. A 100% plastic-free, heat-sealed tea bag outer packaging is currently not available on the market.”

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  10. Thanks for the hard work, Dillie. We have resolved not to buy any more teabags after we’ve finished what we have. Loose-leaf only. And actually we ought to use more of the lovely herbs we grow at home. Mint, lemon verbena, sage… All make delicious infusions. xx

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  11. Excellent! Do you know we could only find two types of loose leaf among endless and exotic varieties of teabags in our local supermarket down here in Oz. No Billy tea either.. an Oz icon.. xx

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  12. We’d like to sing the praises of independent Grey’s Teas (yes, Richard is a descendant of Earl Grey) – it is an online business that sells the most astonishing variety of loose leaf teas, not a tea bag in sight. Highly recommended. Thank you for another thought provoking blog, Dillie – we really appreciate receiving them.

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  13. I have a Godson, whose Yorkshire raised father was at University with me and thereafter married an American girl. They have raised their family in Boston Mass. Said Godson is a joy in many ways, one of which is that he regards teabags as the invention of the devil, and at the age of 18 had a collection of over 20 teapots. He is also also avidly anti-Trump. I do think this young man might be the saving of Uncle Sam.

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  14. I have always been an advocate and user of leaf tea (in a pot) … simply because it tastes so much better… but what a boon also to be helping out environmentally in a tiny way … every little counts.

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  15. These are very difficult times to be getting your head around anything, let alone a complex subject like this, so thank you for managing it!
    Isn’t it strange how the simplest pleasure has become altered and bastardised all to “save” us some time? I’ll be switching to loose leaf as soon as I’ve finished the box of bags at home.

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  16. Thank you Dillie for, as usual, an interesting and well written selection of thoughts on how we can bloody well do better. I have always been an enthusiastic tea drinker, and when I discovered, a few years ago, that tea bags don’t decompose, I made the transition to tea leaves. However, as I live on my own and usually only drink one mug of tea at a time, I found that tea pots, though lovable, make too much tea. After a bit of investigation, I discovered the joys of the individual tea strainer. There are three sorts I have discovered: the novelty one, the one that houses the leaves inside two halves of a sphere that clip together and can be hauled out of the cup by a chain which, theoretically, stays hooked around the cup handle (it often falls into the cup), and the one that’s also two halves of a sphere which are held closed on a spring thingy that looks like an overgrown nappy pin. Sorry I couldn’t persuade pictures of these things to upload – the internet is awash with images of the things if my words haven’t made enough of a picture. I counsel against the novelty ones if you enjoy tea, as they tend to do an awful job of allowing the tea to infuse. I really loved the charming infuser made to look like a sloth clinging to the rim of the cup with its claws, until I found that, probably like a real sloth, it’s no good at making tea. The ball on the chain infuser isn’t made terribly robustly, and there is the unfortunate downside that the chain tends to fall in the tea. The ball on the overgrown nappy pin infuser is the sort I have become very happy with.

    Something I discovered only this week – there are now places where tea plants are grown in the UK. Cornwall has been in on the act for a while, there’s a company just starting up in Devon on the edge of Dartmoor, and there are some tea collectives in Scotland. There may be other tea growers in this country too. It turns out our climate is borderline acceptable for the tea plants – the ones I’ve seen are trying out black, white and green teas

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    • Great post, Helen. I like the springy thing as well. Yes, I remember when the first British tea plantation made the news, and was tempted by Cornish tea. However, I seem to remember also that it was eyewateringly expensive…

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      • I’m not surprised UK tea is really expensive. Now I’ve been reading a bit about it, it turns out it takes about seven years for a tea plant to grow to a state of readiness to produce a tea harvest. The people who are running UK tea plantations seem (I must admit I’m guessing here) like people who have made money somewhere else, got themselves a huge property somewhere rural, and decided that they could do something a little unusual with it. I felt a little disconcerted at seeing a beautiful one time walled garden in Scotland converted to a tea growing area. There’s a logic in it, because the tea plants need protection from the weather, and although it’s quite a big garden, you can’t access it with agricultural sized machinery. To me, a big walled garden is for growing edibles in, and some flowers/shrubs that make you happy too. Britain is such a good country for growing all sorts of things. Whereas in countries where there are long established tea plantations in ares where you couldn’t grow much else, the pickers have been struggling since Covid lockdown, and I doubt they were paid that much before Covid anyway. What they are paid does enable them to keep their crop going and keep their lives going, and really I’d rather support them than what feels more like a novelty crop in the UK

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    • I’m not sure why wordpress doesn’t let me reply to your reply – I have to reply to your original post. Anyhow, I thought that was a very interesting point of view and showed you’d given it a great deal of thought. I do see your point, in this country it’s a novelty crop and really, why on earth would you grow tea here? Yes a walled garden is such a special and beautiful thing that to grow any monocrop in one seems perverse.

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  17. For the last few years, I’ve used a cylindrical stainless steel strainer thingy that sits in the top of the cup, and makes a great single cup of tea. If you want a potful, the same thing fits snugly into the top of the teapot.
    Makes a better cuppa than a teabag.

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  18. I was brought up on loose leaf tea. Tea bags *were* available but my mother’s scorn for those was only matched by her disdain for sliced white bread sold in grease-proof paper and ITV light entertainment.
    Thank you for this post, which brings together a number of issues which have wandered in and out of my mind for some time. I will begin the search for loose leaf tea once the present stock of bags has been reduced. Since typing that last sentence ‘Loose leaf tea’ has been added to the shopping list whiteboard.

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  19. I was brought up on loose leaf tea. Tea bags *were* available but my mother’s scorn for those was only matched by that for sliced white bread sold in grease-proof paper and ITV light entertainment.
    Thank you for this post, which brings together a number of issues which have wandered in and out of my mind for some time. I will begin the search for loose leaf tea once the present stock of bags has been reduced. Since typing that last sentence, ‘Loose leaf tea’ has been added to the shopping list whiteboard.

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  20. Ha Ha Dillie! You beat Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to it (or at least his schedulers at Auntie)! I only started using tea bags when I got married. All through my school and student days I had a colllection of about twenty loose-leaf teas. It’s high time I resurrected my tea caddies. I think some of them still have forty year-old tea leaves in them. I never could get used to the taste of Gunpowder tea!

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  21. How very pleasing to beat Hugh FW!!! Funnily enough, gunpowder tea was my gateway drug to the world of interesting teas. I was intrigued by the name and became quite an addict for a time. I’ve moved on to harder stuff these days.

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    • While we’re on the subject of paper that isn’t all it purports to be, anyone who buys “Plenty” kitchen roll should ask themselves how a paper kitchen towel can be so resilient. Stick one in your compost heap and you’ll have the answer.

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