black&white #23: The tea industry’s plastic problem

black&white #23: The tea industry’s plastic problem

2 min steep

Our collective plastic problem is out of control. Every year, 10 million tons of plastic is dumped in the oceans, equal to a rubbish truck load every minute. Production of plastic has grown from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons in 2015 and is expected to double by 2050. Less than 9% of all plastic gets recycled.

Baby with baby formula

Everyday items like baby bottles and lunchboxes shed microplastics, which end up in our digestive system.

The government is planning to ban single-use plastics in the coming years and many of us have already started to reduce our reliance on plastic – like ditching single-use plastic bottles and tea/coffee cups in favour of reusable ones. But even reusables aren’t perfect. Worrying evidence has emerged about the dangers of microplastics that shed from everyday items – like lunchboxes, clothes and bottles. A couple of years ago, researchers at Trinity College Dublin found that if a parent prepares baby formula by shaking it up in hot water inside a baby bottle, their infant might swallow more than 1 million microplastic particles each day. While the evidence on whether microplastics are harmful to the human body isn’t yet conclusive, scientists predict there are potential risks.

How does the tea industry contribute to the problem? Mainly with the cheap paper tea bags which generally contain plastic and the supposedly ‘premium’ nylon pyramid tea bags (usually available in supermarkets), which have been found to shed billions of microplastics into water. Neither are biodegradable. But companies can do better. Canton pyramids are plastic-free and made from cornstarch, a biodegradable material called Soilon, approved by the Soil Association. They break down harmlessly with heat so should be disposed of in the council food waste bin not a domestic compost heap. Even so, we would be the first to say that because of the resources and energy that go into producing, transporting and packing these Soilon pyramids, our loose leaf teas are still the greener choice.

Canton Plastic Free Tea Bags

Plastic free Canton pyramids.

But the plastic problem isn’t black and white. It has revolutionised the modern world in countless ways, from medical equipment to food safety and transportation. While we know we need to reduce plastic in the food sector, for example, those working to reduce food waste are concerned that by removing the plastic that keeps vegetables fresher for longer, food waste will increase. In the UK alone, we’re estimated to waste around 9.5 million tons of food each year, which equates to a whopping £19 billion and 36 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

The issue of freshness is something which really resonates with us – and it’s the reason why we’ve haven’t been able to go completely plastic-free so far. It’s essential for our calibre of tea to be sealed within an airtight, high-barrier material to keep it fresh and delicious. It also has to keep out light and retain the volatile oils of say Earl Grey, infused with bergamot oil, or Jasmine Pearls, a green tea infused only with natural jasmine blossom. While the packaging industry has been slow to deliver a plastic-free solution for what we need, we’re starting to get to a place we’re happy with. Already, lots of our special edition teas are sealed in a compostable 'natureflex' bag and packed in a reusable tin caddy. And because we sell to hotels and restaurants, we offer larger refill packs, which means you don’t have to order from us so often and the amount of packaging is reduced. We’ve also been working hard to bring in entirely plastic-free packaging for all our retail teas in smaller pack sizes, which we’ll launch later this year.

We know tea bags seem more convenient, but once you’ve got the right kit, there’s really not much in it. You just need a decent strainer or infuser (not one of those fiddly ones on a chain) – and you’ll never look back. If you want a mug-strainer combo, check out our beautiful Minima Balance mug. Or if you just want the strainer, we’d recommend something super-simple like this from the Zero Waste Club.

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black&white #22: Tea, good for the mind, body and soul

black&white #22: Tea, good for the mind, body and soul

black&white #30: Sri Lanka, a tea-producing country in crisis

black&white #30: Sri Lanka, a tea-producing country in crisis

Woman in tea field

black&white #24: Eco-labelling – a nudge in the right direction?