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Gardeners, what should we do about our tea bags?

Teabags

We’ve all become aware of the need to reduce our use of plastics and think carefully about how we dispose of them – and when we garden, being out with nature trying to get the best from our environment, we’re probably more aware of this than most.

When we’re gardening we try to reuse plastic pots and recycle packaging where we can and, of course, compost. Composting is one of life’s little pleasures. Garden and green kitchen waste can be thrown on a heap and, with very little input from us, rich brown soil-improving compost results and we’ve done the environment a good turn too.

But, with all the publicity surrounding the damage plastic pollution does to our environment, if you compost your teabags you’ll be concerned to hear that they might contain plastic.

Plastic peeves

Most tea bags use polypropylene to strengthen and seal the bags. In terms of composting, though the plastic isn’t biodegradable, it usually ‘disappears’ into the soil – and at worst you’re sometimes left with a white mesh after a year or so.

But not everyone is comfortable introducing any plastic into the environment and considering there are billions of teabags sold across the UK every year, that’s a lot of plastic.

Not all teabags contain polypropylene. More expensive brands such as Teapigs and Pukka Tea are plastic free. And some mainstream brands have started offering plastic-free versions. Twinings’ pyramid tea bags and ‘string and tag’ teabags from Clipper are polypropylene free and the Co-op launched a fully biodegradable paper tea bag in February.

And things have changed significantly over the past decade. A Which? Gardening investigation in 2010 found that just one small manufacturer was producing polypropylene-free tea bags and concluded that: ‘the full recyclability of tea bags is not high on many companies’ agendas’.

Natural alternatives

So we’re heading in the right direction, but what’s stopping all manufacturers from cutting out the plastic? The alternatives clearly exist.

Heath & Heather, whose tea bags also contain no plastic, explained how a polypropylene-free bag is made. They said: ‘[our] tea bags are natural, recyclable and compostable; made from soft woods, hard woods and long fibre such as Manila hemp. Instead of using a traditional ‘heat-sealing process’ like many everyday tea bags [our] tea bags are sealed by being folded and sewn with string.’

But until this catches on across the board, if you want to have an environmentally friendly cuppa without any microplastics you’d best look for a tea bag with a string and a tag – or better still treat yourself to some loose leaf tea.

And if you don’t want to change your brand of tea, Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) still recommends composting or popping them into your food recycling bin is still the best way to dispose of tea bags.

Did you know your tea bags might contain plastic? Will it stop you adding them to your compost? And how worried are you about adding plastic to the environment?

Comments

Best way is to make tea in a pot with tea leaves then put those on the heap. And the tea tastes better as well. If you only want a single cup, then either get a small tea pot or an infuser like this, perhaps

I promised you I would start looking into this but I haven’t ‘invested’ just yet! Do you have a favourite type of tea?

I suggest looking for an infuser that has plenty of holes and preferably mesh sides so that the tea has good contact with the hot water. I use a teapot and strainer because that seems more efficient.

We get on very well with M&S Luxury Gold Tea. Fairly strong but not bitter.1 spoon for each person and one for the pot (that works for our ½ pint (284 ml) china mugs). Brew for 3 mins. We don’t bother heating the tea pot. You will need a tea strainer when you pour.

There are some nice teapots for around £20 with a built-in infuser/strainer.

However, for expert advice I’d consult your Adam Gillett 🙂 Perhaps Which? could run an article on tea?

Postcard Teas do some very nice ones (and recommended to me by Adam previously). They’re at the premium end in terms of price but I like them for for gifts and special occasions.

@wavechange a good point, but even more important than sufficient holes is sufficient space for loose leaves to expand as they rehydrate – they do so significantly if you have whole leaf tea. If the tea is compressed in too small an infuser then the leaves at the centre will take longer to soak and infuse, which results in a more bitter drink owing to tannin absorption from the leaves at the edges that infuse before the others. But I’d say that’s really getting quite picky.

I forgot to make that point, but yes of course the infuser needs to be large enough to accommodate expansion yet allow circulation of hot water. I welcome your scientific approach and this is something we can all investigate and learn from our experiments. I am not keen on bitter tea which is why I usually ask for coffee if someone else is making it.

There’s certainly a lot of science to it, and (like any kind of food/drink preparation) a wide variety of pleasant rewards to be had in testing. We could also get onto temperatures, number of infusions (and combining multiple infusions), water-to-leaf ratio, water hardness/softness and dissolved gas content, storage, cold infusion, tea harvesting methods, soil mineral content, processing and all manner of other things. I’d rather not put anyone to sleep, mind you!

I wonder what would happen if the contestants were asked to make a cup of tea on Masterchef…………..?

I expect we’d get someone quoting the Orwell rules for making tea, which are really just rules for ‘making do’ and getting the best out of cheap rationed tea, as if they were gospel for all tea.

Then most would make it in the style of bag tea – a minute or so of brewing with boiling water and then a splash of milk afterwards.

And the rest would probably put the milk in first 😥

A kitchen is just a science lab where you can eat and drink the results of experiments. 🙂

I think it was when I was a student that teabags were referred to as tea dust (or floor sweepings) in toilet paper. That probably helped encourage me to use leaf tea. I don’t drink much teambecause I live in a hard water area, though I’m happy to drink it when visiting friends in soft water areas. The used tea goes in the composting bin along with rather more coffee grounds.

Why do we have plastic in most teabags, for goodness sake. Are the manufacturers completely unaware of the problem with plastics in the marine environment?

I used to work in the tea industry (although strictly at the upmarket loose leaf end) and your ‘sweepings’ description of the tea in British teabags is actually rather accurate – although the industry prefers the more flattering description ‘fannings’. CTC (crush-tear-curl, the method by which most commercial teabag tea is prepared) tea is graded by being passed through a series of increasingly fine sieves, with the good quality ‘whole’ rolled tea leaves trapped near the top and the dusty low-quality fragments caught at the bottom. The very dustiest, most fragmented stuff that falls through the final sieve and is ‘swept’ off the bottom is the ‘fannings’, and what goes into British teabags (for the most part). This is a sad by-product of WWII rationing that never went away, made indelible by the ‘convenient’ fact that it brews more quickly due to its high surface area (which is also the reason why so much tannin escapes into the brew and makes it bitter, requiring milk for sweetness). Indeed, tea farmers are now asked by big companies to put fast brewing time ahead of flavour and quality, and won’t be able to sell in bulk to major buyers if they don’t do so. All for the sake of 2 minutes saved in making an unarguably worse cup of tea.

By the way, the higher grade CTC stuff from the top sieves is commonly found in teabags in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

The use of plastic (either in those clear mesh bags or paper/plastic bags) has long been frankly a bit absurd to me. It does nothing whatsoever to improve the flavour (and is unnecessary for structure in most infuser bags), and everything to harm the environment, costing more to boot. If we want to improve our tea we should drink loose leaf or at least improve the grade of CTC we demand in our bags.

Thanks Adam. That makes sense and the effect of surface area is very obvious. I well remember sitting up until the small hours with friends, drinking tea and trying to put the world to rights. Sometimes we had tea tastings, which were cheaper than sampling different varieties of whisky.

If desired, a good lapsang souchong can approximate a peaty whisky, as it is smoked over pine after harvesting. It can also, when brewed and chilled, make an appealingly smoky alternative to water as a drop in your dram – or even serve as a mixer in a whisky cocktail. And no need for even a filament of plastic in the mix!

Thanks to your prompt, I’m enjoying lapsang souchong at the moment, and not a tea bag in sight – a very satisfying drink.

I don’t think adding lapsang souchong would make much difference to Ardbeg and Caol Ila. 🙂 I will give it a go with one of the more delicate malts.

One of my former colleagues loved to refer to my working class teabags as “monkey tea”. I fear that, having done her Chemistry PhD at Cambridge, she’d been exposed to “posher stuff” there.

The University of Cambridge hosted the world’s first webcam, which allowed staff to check whether there was coffee in the machine in the Trojan Room. My hypothesis is that more research is fuelled by coffee than by tea.

You might be onto something there Wavechange. When I did my course we had a coffee machine outside every classroom. I hope no one watched me on a webcam though, I could never get the machine to work 🤣🤣🤣

Some coffee machines can be a bit awkward but persistence is rewarded. ☕☕

Unfortunately coffee pods in home coffee makers and other devices used in catering machines are not very environmentally friendly.

I was NOT a UC student – but I remember that webcam!

DerekP says Today 07:04:

One of my former colleagues loved to refer to my working class teabags as “monkey tea”. I fear that, having done her Chemistry PhD at Cambridge, she’d been exposed to “posher stuff” there.

Not at Cambridge… 🙂

Interestingly, a friend of mine did her PhD in Chem at Cambridge. But despite that, she’s done well since 🙂

Some folk, not least arty types, were into quite “proper” posh tea when I was at Cambridge.

I preferred beer and wine though…

I thought we were on tea matters rather than alma mater.

You know how to tell the difference between Oxford students and Cambridge students?
.
.
.
.Walk into a roomful and say “Good morning”. The Oxford students will ignore it…. and the Cambridge students will write it down.

I have yet to find a coffee machine that dispenses decaff.

We used to say things like “What do you say to an Oxbridge graduate in their first job?”

“Big Mac and fries, please!”

But these days, following the demise of proper grants and the transition to horrendous loans, pretty much every CV I see includes work experience such as bar work and/or stacking the shelves at Aldi/Lidl.

One guy had done voluntary work for a charity called “Complete Wasters”. They go round collecting the litter at pop festivals. I though, hmm… he’ll certainly fit right in at work…

@beryl you make a very good point. Also, to stay on-topic, you don’t get options for the different type of tea bags (or loose tea) which may have a reduced environmental impact. In my experience, it’s only tea shops which offer loose tea alternatives.

Chain companies all use teas bags, and coffee machines tend to offer hot water and a large selection of different flavoured tea bags.

Do you think there should be more options available?

Do people *really* use these infernal flavour polluting packages around the tea leaves? I thought they were only for canteens…

Realistically tea bags are too convenient for most people to turn back to tea strainers etc. This is another plainly unnecessary use of plastic that surely should be banned. Are we completely mad??

Incidentally, I am reliably told that in the 50-60’s there was a hotel in Saint-Louis, Senegal, which re-used tea bags after drying them up on a washing line like in the picture above. What no-one is sure about is how many times…

PS: On the subject of unnecessary use of something, has anyone noticed the increase use of palm oil in just about anything? What does that do to the environment, eh?… If you want to avoid buying products using it it’s a minefield out there.

I admire the sentiment of this entirely – great post, Sophie. Notwithstanding the environmental issues, am I alone in disliking the flavour that tea bags impart?

Patrick Taylor says:
13 April 2018

ethicalconsumer.org/commentanalysis/environment/sustainablepalmoil.aspx
from 2008 when the charity wrote about it.

This is an interesting German/English site for facts and figures
forumpalmoel.org/what-is-palm-oil
I had not realised that per hectare it is more oil productive than most crops. However mono-cultures and going overboard in taking in land is possibly more to do with profitability than logical planning.

Gerard Phelan says:
20 April 2018

Convenience rules!
Today I answered a Which? Connect Jumbo survey asking about making coffee with the selection of ‘Instant coffee’ as my primary way of getting a cup of coffee. Apart from my tins of Nescafe Azera instant coffee I have a cafetiere (in fact two: small and large), but they are slower and harder to clean and dry.

Then there is my Breville filter coffee maker. I think it was a Which? best buy when the world was young and I love the taste of the coffee it makes – but the jug is almost a litre – which is a lot of coffee, when you are on your own and only fancy a cup.

Next to it sits the Delonghi Scultura, a current Which Best buy. A coffee from this engine is pure theatre – so much rehearsal, a long warm up before the limited drops of denouement fall into your tiny cup, accompanied by the hot panting of the pressure engine, the safety of which casts a insecure shadow on all.

Sadly Which? Connect did not ask about my ‘other’ sources of Coffee delight. For them it was only the ‘most common’ . Indeed as I was writing this I was inspired to venture forth into a cupboard less opened and espied a box of COFFEE BAGS!! Another source of instant delight. Now did that survey have a tick box for ‘Coffee Bags’?

Mrs Lesley Robinson says:
20 April 2018

Teabag should be lightly shaken over the sink to remove ‘dust’ this makes a cuppa made with a teabag certainly more palatable. Works for me.