So we just had record breaking heat in this country, fires in this country caused by the heat, and terrible fires all over Europe. Temperatures of 50 degrees in India. Etcetera.
Anyone who doesn’t believe now that Climate Change is happening, and that it is an utter and complete catastrophe for everything living, is both a knave and a fool.
Anyone who doesn’t assess the way they live their lives is endangering themselves and the rest of us. This is happening faster and more terrifyingly than even I expected.
There is no place for Climate Change Denial.
Repeat. There is no place for Climate Change Denial.
My dear little dog, Piper, has been attacked by fleas and doesn’t look nearly as pretty as usual. I am told by both our local pet shop staff and our vet that this another result of the very hot weather – I’m reliably informed by all three that the flea problem is rampant this year. She’s had two spot-on treatments, a pill from the pet shop and a much stronger pill from the vet. Plus endless baths and combings. She’s on anti itch tablets and is still chewing away at herself, though less so now. I hope the application of Sudocrem is putting her off as much as anything.
Worse still, as I write, she’s having a lump removed and I shall be fetching her home this evening. Yes, it’s cancer, I’m afraid. My poor little girl. So no picture of her this time.
Instead, here’s a cheering picture of the amazing birthday cake which was presented to me on the stage of the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend, at the end of the show. A gift from Team Fascinating Aïda for my 70th birthday.
Well, that’s a depressing title, if there ever was one.
Let me explain. I realise I’ve persuaded all sorts of people to sign up for this blog (THANKS SO MUCH!) and yet I have remained silent for months on end. And it started so well!
I can in part blame a hectic schedule – not only am I on tour (and was on tour all autumn) but my partner and I are running the village pub… it’s a shortish story so I’ll bore you with it…
My partner’s darling brother Frank was the Landlord, for 15 years and tragically died of Covid on Jan 31st in 2021. When lockdown started lifting, the Lease was still held by his Estate and since my partner was the Executor, we were faced with a dilemma. Do we open the pub and let our little community get back together to have a little fun and friendship once again, or do we hand the keys back to the Brewery and let the ownership of the pub pass out of the village for ever?
So of course you know what happened. And it has kept me insanely busy, organising new fire doors, upgrading the kitchen and generally trying to improve the place. No idea how long we’ll be in charge, but it’s fun while it’s lasting.
Also, I got sick. No, not Covid, but one of these super-colds that make you feel you’ve been lamped by a bear. (I gather its nickname is Novid…!) My partner got sick too. He’s still not entirely better many weeks later. And then I had my Christmas concerts to perform with my dear friend Barb Jungr, and then it was Christmas… So you can see that it has been a bit on the busy side!
But if I am honest…
… I have been in a state of blue funk ever since I read an article in the Guardian that said (and I paraphrase) that a survey of the country had shown that the vast majority of people don’t feel it is their responsibility to do anything to combat climate change – they believe that it’s government who should be sorting it.
So while you and I were saving our Christmas ribbon, recycling blister packs with Superdrug, putting on an extra jumper instead of whacking up the heating and making many many small but incremental changes to ensure that we tread more lightly on this glorious planet, most people can’t be bothered to check whether packaging is recyclable, or they’re trading their old moke for a nice big diesel car, eating salmon and wiping their bums with the softest Cushelle. If that isn’t enough to provoke despair.
And running the pub has been instructive. I’m working hard there to make it a little more carbon neutral, but I am surprised by how little my fabulous staff seemed to know about recycling and the use of plastics.
Now you know …
… why I titled this piece “despair”. We are hurtling every faster towards climate catastrophe and hardly anyone is doing anything about it. Have you seen the movie “Don’t Look Up”? It’s wonderful and, manages to be very funny in spite of the fact that it’s about a possible catastrophe. A very important movie, methinks. I saw it the other night and boy, did I identify with the Jennifer Lawrence character. I won’t tell you any more for fear of spoilers.
But I also watched “It’s A Wonderful Life” again. If you’ve never seen it, watch it immediately. It’s about a man called George Bailey who is “discouraged”– but who is made to see that the tiny actions and accidents of his life have made his town a better place. It’s about hope and decency and, when push comes to shove, doing the right thing in spite of all temptation to do otherwise.
So I am willing myself to soldier on like George Bailey in the hope that all of you are doing so too. If you haven’t read the pieces on salmon, avocado, or soft loo paper, please do. And pass it on. It’s all very well being righteous at home, but unless we really make the world aware that the cataclysm is around the corner, we really might as well eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow…
Meanwhile, after much thought, I am going to slightly change the blog. I simply haven’t got time to do the enormous amount of research for the kind of pieces I was writing – each piece took at least a week because I have to read the scientific papers VERY slowly in order to have even the slightest chance of understanding them. And I suspect people haven’t got the time to read them… so expect some different kind of stuff from now on.
But you can always expect two things…
Your Plastic Fact Of The Week
Although not obvious to the naked eye, small pieces of plastic debris deemed ‘‘microplastics’’ (particles less than 5 mm in diameter but larger than 1 micrometre) are the most abundant form of solid waste on Earth. (Source here)
A picture of the world’s most delightful (though annoyingly shouty) dog.
There’s no getting away from plastic. It’s with us whether we like it or not. And right now, the onus to use/not use and recycle/dump is entirely on us, the purchasers. So if we can find ways to can minimise our use of plastic, all the better. So here are a few suggestions.
Anything with pump action
I get horrible attacks of eczema which means I have to purchase endless vats and tubes of all sorts of creams and unguents to rehydrate my poor, dry, itchy skin. Recently, I couldn’t get a half full pump-action pot to work – don’t you hate it when that happens!. So I tried to take it apart so that I could use the rest of the cream. Only then did I realise that there was SO much more plastic than I’d realised. (Oh, and empty space for which I was paying…!)
I can’t think why it took me SO long to work out that anything with a pump action means there is a great deal more plastic than is absolutely necessary. Now I just get a simple tube or a pot.
Knorr Stock Pots etc
For some unimaginable reason, companies have started selling the same or very similar products in plastic where they have always sold them in something recyclable (tins) or biodegradable (foil wrap). Grrr! The Knorr stock pot is a case in point.
Let me assure you that the so-called “stock pot” is more or less the same as the Knorr Stock cube. Only not quite as tasty – yes, I tested it. It was a very clever marketing trick to make the new Stock Pot look more melty than the old cube but please be assured, the stock cube dissolves in hot water, hot stew etc., every bit as well as the stock pot. So keep a look out for other pernicious plasticisation.
And why have John West started selling fish in plastic pots instead of cans? Shame on them!!!
Proper medicines have to come in blister packs – it’s the law – but why do so many complementary meds and cough sweets (Strepsils! I name and shame you!) also come in blister packs? Superdrug now recycle them but recycling consumes a fair amount of energy, and the thought of having to recycle the unnecessary makes the heart sink. So please have a look out for alternatives wherever possible.
Meat ‘n’ veg
Bring your own container to the butchers and ask them to use that. They will, you know – and you won’t be the first to ask.
Buy loose vegetables and fruit where you can. If you have a local market or a regular stall on the street, better still. Ask them to put the veg straight into your bag for life – after all, we don’t really need paper bags for most of it. Our mothers and grandmothers knew how to shop – potatoes at the bottom, then onions, root veg, brassicas, hard fruit, and then the softer fruit, tomatoes, lettuces etc on top.
Yep, plastic. Two layers of artificial polymers laminated together which will release fibres into the sewage system every time you use them. Use a biodegradable bristle brush from Ecovibe.
So just be mindful of what you buy. Meanwhile, I’d be delighted to include any ideas from you guys. Please do send them in. And I’m going to try and keep these posts a bit shorter in the future. The long ones take me at least two weeks to research and write. Not being a scientist, trawling through long scientific papers is slow going.
GOLD STAR AWARD
This goes to Barilla, the pasta manufacturers, who have stopped selling packets of pasta with plastic windows. Hurrah for Barilla!
Frightening plastic fact for today
A garment made from polyester or any other synthetic fabric can shed 1900 fibres per wash.
In humans, inhaled microplastic fibres are taken up by the lung tissues and can become associated with tumours, whilst dispersive dyes from polyester and acrylic fibres have been shown to cause dermatitis. See below for citation.
In other words, wear more natural fabrics and wash your clothes less!
We’ve had a fairly torrid time of it at home. After a string of losses, it was very hard to summon the mojo needed for this kind of work. But I’m back out on the road now with my pals, Fascinating Aïda, and it’s just wonderful to be working again. A shot in the arm.
So here’s a final picture of the amazing old fella who gave us so much joy for 13 wonderful years, known as Three Dogs Barney because my partner always called “Barney Barney Barney!” We said goodbye to him on 1st April, just before Easter. Piper was a very lost little doggie for months afterwards.
Hello! Yes, it’s been far too long since I last posted. I went through a period of lockdown blues, then Frank, my partner’s beloved brother, died of Covid, and then I too got Covid. It was impossible to find enthusiasm for anything other than biscuits.
As if that wasn’t enough, our wonderful labrador, Barney, had to be put down just before Easter. Yep, 2021 turned out to be just like 2020 – lousy. In 14 months, my partner has lost two brothers, two best friends, a mare and foal and his adored dog. And one of my best friends died too. So I haven’t really felt able to grasp the nettle of this blog.
But the story does get better, I assure you. When the first lockdown easing happened, I went up to North Norfolk – my nephew has a little one-room flat separate from his house which he keeps for family and friends wanting to take the Norfolk air. So I was able to have an entirely legal holiday there, meet my nephew’s adorable babies and get to know his fabulous wife, see my beloved sister who lives 7 miles away, and see my darling friend Olivia who was 25 miles away. It was during that warmish patch when spring arrived and so being outside all day was no problem.
And I can tell you right now, hand on heart, that it’s quite miraculous what four days with family and friends can do. I am still grieving, but I’ve got some of my mojo back.
Stop waffling, Dillie
Anyhow, I was going to publish this in time for Valentine’s Day but I didn’t. And then Easter and Mother’s Day slipped by. So I’m hoping this will land in time for all those May birthdays – and once you’ve read this, you will send birthday bouquets rather than “arrangements”.
Because you need to check carefully if those arrangements use Oasis®. Yes, it’s one of the unrecognised evils which we take for granted in modern life and it is made by those old friends of the environment (IRONY ALERT), du Pont.
(I should at this moment add that this piece was suggested by one of my readers, Shane Connolly who is a Floral Designer Of Great Note and thus knows what he is talking about. Thanks, Shane, I never knew this!)
I’m horrified to admit that I have used it quite a bit in my life. I love flowers in the house. I’m firmly of the belief that a jug full of cheap daffs can really lift the spirits. My mother, who loved a nice bowl of flowers, was a great fan and used tons of the stuff. It’s beloved by floral artists the world over and if you ever go to Covent Garden flower market early in the morning, as I have done many a time, you will see stalls where it’s piled high.
Here’s a particularly offensive bit of kit.These things are called “Connecting Floral Wet Foam Cylinders” – that’s Newspeak for “more plastic than you can possibly need”.
But of course, I had no idea that Oasis is actually a plastic – it’s produced by mixing phenol and formaldehyde with each other and then adding air, which turns it into phenolic foam.
In other words, the same stuff the building trade use for insulation on external walls. It has a low thermal conductivity which is good for keeping heat inside the house, and is very nearly non-flammable with negligible smoke emission, and a very low level of toxic gas emission. In other words, it’s an incredibly efficient form of insulation – an eco use of something non-eco. (Later Edit – thanks to reader Sandy Macpherson for reminding me that inflammable means easily set on fire.)
I’m not naive enough to think that we can stop all uses of plastics – it’s far too useful to humankind – but we can surely stop frivolous use of plastics, and using it for flower arrangements certainly counts as frivolous.
I’ve written enough on plastics here on the blog, but if you want to know what happens to plastic as it degrades and why it is dangerous, have a look at my piece on Saran Wrap/Cling Film.
But really, all you need to know is this. Oasis is plastic that crumbles easily – heck, it almost becomes a nanoplastic the minute you use it. Even if you try to dispose of it properly enters the sewage system where it is eventually washed out into the sea, into our rivers and onto the land with catastrophic results.
Flower arranging without foam
Yes, just search “flower arranging without foam” and you’ll see that it’s perfectly possible. There are YouTube videos showing you how, gadgets for holding flowers, and shops that sell arrangements.
And I made the wreath for Frank’s coffin without oasis. Before I show you what is possible from a total amateur (me), here’s a pic of the frame. The plastic cup was part of an arrangement that someone had sent me, and could be removed afterwards.
Then I put chicken wire in between the layers of bamboo which held the stems. Finally, as I wanted the arrangement the size of the coffin, I placed the frame on a piece of chipboard which supported the frame. Everything was reusable, in other words. Obviously, I hope I don’t have to reuse any of these for a long time!
Best of all, every single branch of greenery and every single flower either came from my garden or the gardens of friends who’d also loved Frank. And it was February too. Here it is.
And goodbye Barney…
I always end with a picture of one of our animals, because they’re such wonderful friends; they gladden our hearts and sustain us through bad times. Barney was John’s dog, so I didn’t post so many pictures of him. But oh, he was a glorious member of our household for very nearly 13 years.
Don’t be silly, of course I’m going to send cards this Christmas. Life is gloomy enough already with Covid threatening to reduce our annual celebrations to a forlorn plate of turkey twizzlers and a lonely slice of chocolate log. Sure, I do send fewer than I used to but it’s my way of telling people far away that I still love and cherish them.
And anyhow, not sending any cards really hits charities who rely on the income. But we need to think about what kind of cards we send.
So charity cards are good, better still buy recyclable charity cards direct from the charity and avoid card shops and supermarkets who absorb much of the profit.
But you know all that, and you know to look for the FSC logo, don’t you? Approval from the Forest Stewardship Council should reassure you that the card is from an approved source, shouldn’t it? Ho hum.
Survival International, where I usually get my beautiful cards, don’t actually credit the FSC any more – in spite of the fact that the card they use is fully certified. This is because of a shocking discovery by Greenpeace. Briefly, a logging company (Rougier) is chopping down a vast area of rainforest in southeast Cameroon. They are doing this as an official partner of the World Wildlife Fund (ironic, huh?) and crucially, without the consent of local Baka “Pygmies” who have lived there in harmony with the forest for centuries. In other words, they are destroying the home of a tribal people.
And because of their partnership with the WWF, Rougier can use the WWF Panda logo and is FSC certified. Clever, eh?
Beware greenwashing. Yes, beware greenwashing.
But if you’re happy with the ethics of your chosen supplier and you accept FSC certification, look for FSC 100% or FSC recycled – there’s a lot more information here if you want to find out the whys and the wherefores.
Secondly, avoid cards with embellishments – ribbons, badges, glitter – all these make it FAR more difficult to recycle. Really, is anyone going to sit at home in January taking off the bits and bobs? Yeah, I might, but then I’m obsessive!
Next, avoid cards with batteries. Batteries are the devil (I’ve written about them before). And do you honestly think your cousin’s Yuletide is improved by hearing Twisted Sister singing Let It Snow when she opens her card?
Finally – don’t buy shiny cards with patches of foil. I do not believe them to be recyclable, although I found any amount of websites declaring that foil on cards was recyclable with little supporting evidence. There has been a study that seems to show that foil is sustainable but since the study was commissioned by the Foil Stamping and Embossing Association, I’m inclined to regard it as a little on the partial side… call me an old cynic but I once worked in the advertising industry…
And then I found a website called Johnsons Cards who have the grace to tell anyone who passes by that “foils are actually a very thin polyester film carrying a foil pigment.” Ah, it’s our old pal, polyester. A polymer derived from petroleum. Not biodegradable at all, then.
In the interests of further research, I had an online chat with Suzanne, a dear little brunette avatar at The Foil Printing Co. Here is most of it – I’ve added a bit of punctuation and respelled most of it to make us both look slightly more literate. It’s a marvellous exercise in obfuscation and marketing speak.
Welcome to LiveChat
Suzanne – Customer Service Advisor (That’s her above. Isn’t she a cutie?) : Welcome to The Foil Printing Co. If you have any questions just drop us a line. We’d love to chat!
Me: What is foil made of when it’s attached to card?
Suzanne: the foil is a metallic foil that is applied onto the card with a soft lamination that is required for the foiling and this leaves a smooth velvety feel to the item.
Me: Is it actually made from metal? I’m researching for my school project. (I know, I lied. Sorry.)
Suzanne: no sorry shinny foil
Me: Shinny foil? (Shinny!!! Sorry, I couldn’t resist including that misspelling!)
Suzanne: Yes which is called metallic foil.
Me: And what is that made of?
Suzanne: METALLIC FOIL SAMPLE PACK Our metallic foil sample pack has been crafted with an eye for perfection by our talented marketing and design team. It includes everything needed to reassure you that placing a foil order with us will result in some of the most fantastic foiled items you will have laid eyes on. To give you a full rundown you’ll receive samples of all our most popular foil options with our soft touch matt laminate. You’ll also get samples of all our coloured and traditional paper options along with examples of the thicknesses we offer. Since we have over 300 different foil print combinations, you can play mix and match with nearly everything in the sample pack to end up with the perfect foiled print. Ordering your sample pack is a piece of cake. Just give us some info about how you found us, add it to the basket, then checkout. You’ll be able to provide us with the postage details then. / Sorry cannot state this / Description about foiling above https://thefoilprintingco.com/uk/blog/post/metallic-foil-printing-what-colours-can-we-foil/(Yes, this really was her answer. The oblique slashes indicate a new line within the same paragraph which I can’t replicate here.)
Me: I don’t want to order samples. I’m researching foil cards for a project about Christmas cards. What do you mean, sorry cannot state this?
Suzanne: Read the blog I have attached that explains a bit (it doesn’t, it just tells you about the many colours of foil printing) – cannot say what the foil is made from.
Me: Why, don’t you know? Just trying to understand. Metallic doesn’t mean made of metal? (Remind you of anything? Like “plastic free teabags” not meaning plastic free teabags?)
Suzanne: Do not have the details for this, sorry.
Me: Who can I ask for information?
Suzanne: We do not have the manufacturer specifications
Me: Oh, I see. So you aren’t the manufacturer?
Suzanne: No, we just apply this to the items required.
Me: But it says on your website that foil printing is recyclable, so it’s quite surprising that you don’t know what the foil is made of.
Suzanne: We buy the foil in and do not have the manufacturer specifications sorry.
Me: But your website clearly states that foil is recyclable.
Suzanne: Sorry, do not have any more information about the foil other than what is on the website page.
Me: Hmmm. I think you aren’t allowed to tell me. Bye bye.
Suzanne: Thank you for your time today and have a good day.
Suzanne has closed the chat.
Ho hum. AVOID FOIL AND SHINY CARDS!!!!
Is that all?
Pretty much – but save the stamps. They can make money for charities – and they’re getting scarcer since the advent of email.
And after Christmas?
I’ll give you some tips about how to dispose of them then. FFS, that’s enough for now about Christmas cards!
I haven’t posted for ages. Sorry. Blame Covid gloom.
But I did do something rather exciting. Yours truly was asked to give the opening keynote speech at the LSBU Sustainability and Climate Change Action Event a couple of weeks ago. (London South Bank University). I was so nervous I couldn’t focus on anything else for weeks beforehand, I’ve never been a speaker anywhere before, let alone a keynote speaker.
I promise I won’t email again, three in a day is testing your patience. But I’ve had quite a few emails, messages, posts on FB and now a comment from Beth Parker = all saying the same sort of thing – they can’t get there as it’s too far away.
The event is Virtual, like all events these days. I thought that would be clear enough but clearly not clear for some. So if you register online, you will get instructions as to how to view it online.
The event begins at 9.00 am on 4th November. My keynote speech commences at 9.30 am on the same day. View on your phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer. I will be in my office chatting to my desktop and feeling rather odd.
Sorry if you have been confused. And I promise, if I have to email you again today I will walk up Croagh Patrick on my arthritic knees in penance.
And many thanks to those of you who have already let me know that you’ve registered!
My last post about teabags generated so many emails and quite a bit of comment that I thought it worth following up…
The general theme was supportive (phew!) but a large number of people told me they had already switched to plastic free teabags.
The depressing news is that there is no such thing. Unfortunately for us and for the kind of clarity which is in such short supply these days, it’s perfectly legal for companies to use the phrase “plastic free” because this, in food labelling terms, is understood to mean plastics made from petroleum and you’d be forgiven for thinking this meant all plastics. It doesn’t. It’s verbal obfuscation. (If you’re new to the blog, PLA and bioplastics are fully explained in my last post so I won’t bang on about it again.)
My friend Liza in particular told me she was drinking tea made by a local company which was most definitely labelled as being “plastic free”. Ho hum, I thought.
So I wrote to them. Here is our correspondence.
ME Hi. I’m looking for a plastic free teabag and yours sounds just the thing. Can you tell me what material you use to heat seal the teabags?
THEM: Hi, thanks for contacting us. Our tea bags are made from corn starch and when they are heat sealed together it is the starch/glucose bonding together. The tea bag itself has no taste or aroma and does not affect the great flavours of our teas. Our time out tea bags are packed with high quality unground ingredients, packed into a clear bag made from eucalyptus and both are biodegradable/compostable. Our tea boxes are printed with vegetable ink on a mixture of recycled and FSC card. We even use a brown paper parcel tape which uses a potato starch glue.We hope this answers your question and would love for you to try our lovely teas.
ME: Thanks very much for your reply, it was kind of you to go into so much detail. I am just concerned about one thing – by corn starch, I understand that this is the base material used to make bioplastic, or PLA. Is this correct? And my research seems to point to the fact that whilst bioplastic is fully biodegradable, it is not actually compostable. So if you live in an area which doesn’t collect food and garden waste, it has to go into the general rubbish, because it won’t properly degrade in the compost heap (if you’re lucky enough to have one!). I found this on the Yogi Tea website. “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.” Can you clarify? I’m just looking for a teabag that contains no plastic at all – petroleum based or bio! I do realise that companies like you are fallling over backwards to try and minimise plastic pollution, but if I can’t find a completely plastic free teabag, I shall move entirely to leaf tea.
THEM: “Hi, no problem getting back to us, we always like chatting tea and we have worked so hard at removing all plastics from our tea ranges. You are correct that corn starch is also known as PLA but it contains cero (sic) plastic and no petroleum. It does prefer to go into an industrial compost i.e. council collection and unfortunately in this county we are still waiting for this to happen, but we compost at home ourselves and if we find a bag not fully composted when we turn out our compost for use, we just pop it back in and wait for the next year. If it does go into landfill at least there is no plastic to leach out into the ground and landfills don’t bury the products immediately, which means the tea bag has a slight chance to start breaking down with the microbes found on site. There is also a chance that the general waste will go to an incinerator, which makes energy, and these teabags won’t have any plastic released into the atmosphere. If you are still not convinced with corn starch tea bags, we have a large selection of loose teas available, all packed in natureflex, which is 100% plastic free material made from fast growing Eucalyptus trees and they seal without any plastic and are 100% home compostable.”
No names, no pack drill
Look, they’re obviously a really nice company trying very hard to minimise their impact so I’m not going to name them. But all the same it’s disingenuous to claim that their packaging is ‘plastic free’, so I won’t be buying any of their tea any time soon. Meanwhile, hats off to Yogi teas for their honesty.
And it’s still leaf tea for me, because I keep finding shredded teabags in my compost from at least three years ago that have failed to decompose…
In other exciting news…
Yours truly was approached earlier this year by London South Bank University. Would I be willing to give a keynote speech at one of their series of Sustainability and Climate Action Events?
Well, dear readers, I was speechless. Which is not a useful state to be in when asked to actually open your gob and say something half intelligent.
However, when I’d picked myself up off the floor and apologised to the dog (she gets a fright when I fall over), I said yes. So I shall be opening the three day event on 4th November at 9.30 am – put it in your diaries and tune in. It is of course virtual like everything else during these covidious times but that does make it a lot more accessible for everyone. Here’s the link – it’s free to register and attend. https://www.lsbu.ac.uk/whats-on/consumption-economics-education-wellbeing-event
And I have to admit that I’m very excited as well as nervous – actually, I find it difficult to think of much else as the date draws near. Eek!
And last but SO not least…
For those of you who read this blog online, I would like to thank Ian Wagg on Unsplash for the lovely picture of teapickers in a tea plantation. For those of you who read this in email form, you won’t have a dickybird what I’m talking about as the header photos are not published on the email versions. No idea why.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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?
Some bioplastics (polyethene terephthalate or PET bioplastics) aren’t actually biodegradable. They are recyclable, but they will never become compost.
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?
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.
According to the same study, “biopolymers exceeded most of the petroleum-based polymers for ecotoxicity and carcinogen emissions.”
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.
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.
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.
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.