Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Tetley tea folk comment on this humble blog

I received a comment on the previous post from Sara Howe, who is the Director of Sustainability at the TATA tea group, which manufactures and sells Tetley tea bags in the UK. I am reposting it in this blogpost, along with my response, to give it a little more prominence. First, however, you must read this for some background!

In common with just about all industries and retailing organisations that have developed over the last several decades, the tea industry has the sustainability handicap that, while they were growing, considerations of sustainability were almost completely off their radar and, if they were raised at all, were irrelevant to the economic bottom line. Indeed, they were probably looked at as an economic cost to be avoided if possible.

This is because, when organisations are driven by competition, they are forced to optimise the factors that are taken into account to measure success. Up until now, that has just about exclusively been the accountant's bottom line balance sheet - totting up money received against money spent. Remember Dickens' Mr. Micawber and his famous principle?

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

I am afraid that now we have realised that the impact of economic growth on the planet is no longer sustainable, we have to take a few more things into account than just monetary matters when we decide if an operation is profitable/successful or not. This is where alternative economic systems of measurement, such as ecological economics and environmental economics show the way.

By including hitherto ignored externalities, such as pollution, social costs, biodiversity and carbon footprint into economic measurement, the powerful economic forces of the free market will render businesses that are run on sustainable principles more profitable - and those that do not will become less profitable. Without the need for massive intrusive legislation, people will tend to be able to make sustainability based purchasing decisions without knowing, simply by bargain hunting! Here is a link to a Wikipedia article about this school of economic thought.

Here’s Sara’s post

Anonymous Tetley said...

Dear Mr Palmer,

As the Director of Sustainability at the Tata Tea group which manufactures and sells Tetley tea bags in the UK, I have been following your blog on tea bag tissue with interest. I’m sorry you felt your initial enquiry was met with PR spin; we always try to pass on the relevant facts and useful information to people who contact us.

We share your ambition for zero packaging to landfill and are working to turn this vision into reality. However tea bag tissue is highly specified and no one has yet found the perfect solution i.e. fully compostable, with a tight seal (because a tea bag that splits is so annoying!) and paper that allows the tea to brew well and runs on high-speed packing machines. I will be passing your comments on to my packaging development colleagues - hopefully there is a solution waiting to be found!

Thank you for raising this issue – we need to live more sustainably but this is very challenging – understanding the challenges helps find a way forward.

Kind regards
Director of Sustainability

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 9:09:00 AM


And my response
Blogger Nick Palmer said...

Thanks for your comment Sara.

You wrote "I’m sorry you felt your initial enquiry was met with PR spin; we always try to pass on the relevant facts and useful information to people who contact us".

Whilst I realise your customer service agents have a hard job handling the often difficult comments from the general public, occasionally they will get approached about matters that require a more knowledgeable response.

I took your agent's initial response to mean that they assumed that the reason I was seeing teabag "ghosts" was because I was failing to provide good composting conditions and their unspoken implication was that my "ghosts" were actually partially degraded cellulose fibres because I was not composting for long enough or hot enough or I didn't have enough worms.

If you refer to the reply from PG Tips you will see a worse answer, that I suppose was just down to an insufficiently knowledgeable agent (they appeared to believe the whole bag was compostable) - I don't see dark conspiracies or a policy to mislead in these answers, or at least I hope not. I hope the agents concerned do not suffer any consequences beyond being given a little extra knowledge so they can respond better in future.

I am aware of the industrial rationale for how some modern teabags are -I did my research. Here is a link to a detailed article on teabag paper, albeit from 1993.

Perhaps a key part in your comment is the "high speed packing machines" bit. The development and costing of these machines took place at a time when sustainability considerations did not form part of the mainstream responsibility of companies. Now they do.

You say there is an absence of a fully compostable teabag paper that can be used with these machines - perhaps the future requires a fundamental rethink of packaging machinery design?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 2:08:00 PM



TonyTheProf said...

I'm following your Tea bag saga with interest as a avid consumer of the humble weed.

Question 1: if the tea bag contains non-biodegradable materials, can these leech out (in small quantities) and damage those imbibing the drink?

Question 2 (off topic!): on biodegrable plastics, did you ever see the Doomwatch episode on a biological agent for destroying plastic that used a plastic easting bacteria?

Nick Palmer said...

Q1 Hmmm. I'm ashamed to say I hadn't considered that aspect yet. I'm probably sticking my neck out too far here but it tends to be the additives to plastics that attract all the flak, such as plasticisers, flame retardants, anti-statics etc. Some of these are supposed to be hormone mimickers (endocrine disruptors) and currently Bisphenol A (BPA) is getting a lot of attention because it leaches from polycarbonate water bottles, particularly when carrying hot liquid. Phthalates were "anti-flavour of the month" previously.

As far as I know, no common polymer is directly toxic but the monomers can be - thus polystyrene is non toxic (although very chewy to eat!) but the styrene monomer it is made from is toxic. McDonald's caught a bit of aggro about their take away food trays in the "McLibel" Trial.

The additives are used to modify the various physical characteristics of the plastics. I do not yet know whether the polyester, polypropylene or even PVC fibres that are used in the majority of teabags contain property modifying plastic additives but I suppose there is a pretty good chance that they do.

If the fibre net is exposed to boiling water it is, of course, a "perfect storm" situation for accelerating the leaching of any additives into Britain's favourite drink and then on into our bodies.

My blog/tweets are now monitored by Yorkshire Tea (tea worth poisoning yourself for!) - don't sue me Yorkshire Tea - it was just a joke :) and possibly PG and Tetley so if they don't contact me about additives leaching from the plastic, I'll get onto them and see what they say.

In email conversation with these tea companies, and also a couple of smaller organic ones, it appears as if the tea companies don't have total control or knowledge of their teabag paper because it seems to be supplied in variable configurations by their materials suppliers. It may be that they have to use a system similar to the Tetrapak one our Jersey Dairy uses - they are locked in to this packaging method because I suspect they get the actual packing machines at a discount or free of charge if they commit to using the paperboard supplied by Tetrapak/Elopak.

These methods are all yet another version of the razor/razorblade marketing model - surely one of the midwives in at the birth of unsustainability... I suppose the below-cost mobile phone plus ultimately expensive contract is a modern twist on grabbing the consumer by the short and (coarse expression deleted) and extracting money indefinitely.

I have a Sigg refillable water bottle and I was a bit annoyed to find that the gold coloured lining (I'd assumed it was actually very thin gold plate) actually contains BPA. Due to the fuss this caused in the US, Sigg are accepting bottles back and will swap them for a free one of their new design which has a new, supposedly environmentally friendly, lining.

Q2 Yes, I remember the "Doomwatch" quite well, particularly the bit when the overhead lockers etc of the plane started liquefying.