Tea bags - A plastic argument?


A while ago we were watching a re-run of a great BBC TV programme about automated food production, presented by Gregg Wallace, a well know food ingredients expert in the UK and now a TV presenter. He has done a number of these "Inside the factory" shows , which involve studying the process of top selling commodity foods, from the delivery of raw ingredients at the factory door, right through to the packing of the finished product ready for delivery to the shops.

These shows have given an in depth study of the production of, amongst other things, Baked beans, Chocolate digestive biscuits and Milk. All have been extremely compulsive viewing and very interesting, with mind blowing facts about our daily consumption of these popular food items.

But the one that captured me the most, was the week that they did the programme about Tea Bags. Being a huge tea drinker, this subject appeals greatly, but it isn’t just me who loves the stuff. I am reliably informed that Tea is the second most consumed drink in the World, after water. Apparently just in the UK alone, we consume around 55 Billion tea bags a year. (Over 158 million Americans drink tea every day, 80% of them using tea bags)

The UK figure is made up from various brands including the major players, such as Tetley, Typhoo, PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, Twinings and others. The programme focused on one major manufacturer, but similar processes are employed by the others. One of the main things that emerged, common to almost all of the large producers, was the discovery about the use of plastic in the tea bag production process.

Like most people, (or as I thought), I had assumed that tea bags just consisted of tea and "holey" paper.  

This is not the case. A very thin layer of polypropylene is added to the biodegradable tea bag paper material. When the bags are at the stage of having the tea added, the top layer of the tea bag is then placed over the tea and the bottom of the bag, after which heat is applied to instantly melt the plastic, effectively bonding the two halves. It is a key feature that the melting point of this plastic is actually above that of boiling water, thus, very efficiently, preventing the tea bags from splitting in the pot or the cup during the brewing process.

clipart puzzled I am not sure how I thought that teabags where actually sealed after adding the tea. Maybe I hadn’t really thought about it at all for all these years.

Maybe it is the case that more people are more aware than I think about the plastic content in a teabag, but certainly not me. But, on discovering this fact, alarm bells immediately rang in my mind. My concern isn’t about the risk of my swallowing plastic whilst drinking my tea. I am confident about the science of the melting point and the integrity of the bag.

My concern is about the sheer quantity of non-degradable plastic that is being created and left behind. When the tea bag composts and bio degrades, only the paper part actually does this. The plastic content remains behind indefinitely. It may end up in the soil and then will potentially find its way into our rivers and oceans.

I have since heard that there are some smaller tea bag producers, who have alternative non plastic sealing solutions.
One such company is Pukka. They do not use any plastic, choosing to actually sew together the sides of the bags with a cotton thread. The other company is Teapigs. they use a bi-product of corn starch, called soilon, which effectively bonds the bags together.

Twinings claim to be plastic free for their pyramid range, which uses a type of maize starch.
One of the other large manufacturers, Tetley, also claims their string and tag bags to be plastic free.

Having now seen and looked at this issue, it leaves me with many questions.

 - Is this really a problem?
 - How much plastic are we talking about - 55 billion teabags x ??? grams per year in the UK alone
 - Should this not be studied further?
 - Does the alternative use of maize and corn starch affect the flavour of the tea?
 - Should we be boycotting tea bags in favour of loose leaves?

While we are waiting for answers, let's get the kettle on...

category tea

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