Monday, 23 November 2009

Teabags just won’t go away

Back in May I did a post (click for link) on the problems that composting teabags, particularly in a wormery, bring. Since then I have been bringing this issue to the attention of various bloggers and sites interested in zero waste, composting and organic growing.

Recently, I emailed some of the larger teabag manufacturers to see what they had to say about this. I reproduce my emails to, and the replies from, Yorkshire tea, Tetley and PG Tips (slightly edited to remove spaces, some empty lines etc). It seems that if you buy mainstream brands of teabags, then they all will have plastic in them. As the story develops I will do further posts.

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TO YORKSHIRE TEA

Hi,
Could you confirm that your range of tea bags use a percentage of plastic fibres in them to enable heat sealing?
I discovered the problem with this when worm composting my kitchen waste.
Here is a link to a blogpost I did on this topic
http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com/2009/05/worms-tea-bags-and-tissues.html
I have been posting about this problem in the blogosphere and things are "hotting up".
Here is a post today from coopette at AKG
http://coopette.com/blog/tea-break
Is there another method of teabag manufacture that makes a completely degradable bag, whether conventionally composted or in a wormery?
sincerely,
Nick Palmer
For the planet - and the people - because they're worth it
blogspot: "Sustainability and stuff according to Nick Palmer"
http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com

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REPLY

Dear Mr Palmer
Thank you for your e-mail. The links to the blogs were very interesting.
Our teabag paper (and that of all the major teabag brands) is a mixed fibre. We don't have the exact recipe as this is determined by our suppliers. They use a blend of wood pulps and other biodegradable fibres to make the bulk of the paper. They add a very small amount of polypropylene (about 3%) to make the paper heat sealable.
As you are no doubt aware, legislation says that provided an item is 95% degradable, then it is classed as compostable. The amount of polypropylene in teabag paper is much less than this, so from a legal point of view teabag paper is compostable.
This doesn't answer all the concerns that we have may have though!
Basically polypropylene is inert and does not react with or damage plants or animals. There is some argument that says that polypropylene fibre can help soil bind together and aid water retention in soil, but the amounts of polypropylene that you would compost via teabags would really not register in a typical garden.
I do hope this helps. If we can be of further help, please do contact us again.
Regards
Alison Hampshire
Customer Services
Taylors of Harrogate
Freephone 0500 418898
customer.services@bettysandtaylors.co.uk

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MY RESPONSE

Dear Yorkshire Tea,
Firstly I must say that your reply was probably the most informative of the replies to my query. Those from PG tips and Tetley were less than satisfactory. You can read them, and my responses, on my latest blogpost "teabags just won't go away"

3% may appear to be a small amount. Because the polypropylene effectively never degrades, however, it continually builds up - this goes against the basic principles of sustainability. Every thirty tea bags used is the equivalent of a whole one totally made of plastic. The effect is particularly obvious and intrusive in wormeries, which more and more people are purchasing as part of an effort to go “zero waste” for landfill or incineration or to make their own organic compost. Take it from me, these plastic nets are an obvious problem in wormeries.
As you have seen, I run a sustainability blog and an occasional environmental consultancy (Forskitt, Palmer and Perkins) so I have to suggest that any manufacturing policy that leads to a build up in the soil of non biodegradeable plastic is not ultimately sustainable and is not likely to be in the future of tea retailing. This is the sort of environmental information that people need to know. Until I found out I, like everybody else, just assumed that teabags were completely compostable. Perhaps your company needs to look at sourcing completely biodegradeable teabag paper?

sincerely,

Nick Palmer

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TETLEY TEA

Hi,
Firstly, let me congratulate you on your sustainable/fair trade type policies. As you can see from my sign off I write a sustainability blog and I would like to ask you if the teabag paper that you use is fully biodegradable in a compost heap or wormery? I ask for the following reason. After several years of composting teabags in my wormery, I noticed a "net" of teabag "ghosts" building up which proved to be indigestible plastic residue. Perhaps it is easiest if you look at a blog post I did about this for more details .
nickpalmer.blogspot.com/2009/05/worms-tea-bags-and-tissues.html
This problem does not seem to be known at all in the composting fraternity and I am almost fighting a one-man campaign at the moment. Emma Cooper at the respected and widely read alternative kitchen garden and coopette.com blogs has just done a post based on my observations.
coopette.com/blog/tea-break
Nowadays, many people are trying to reduce their domestic waste and are trying to compost as much as they can so having plastic residue in their organic compost is not welcome.
Thanking you in advance.
Nick Palmer
On the side of the Planet - and the people - because they're worth it
Blogspot - Sustainability and stuff according to Nick Palmer nickpalmer.blogspot.com

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REPLY

Dear Nick,
Thanks for your email. The material used to make the actual tea bag is a mixture of mainly cellulose fibres and a small amount of polypropylene fibres to give the heat seal. Under normal composting conditions the cellulose fibres will break down, as will the tea, leaving the very small polypropylene fibres which are normally so small they are not seen. It does however take a reasonable amount of time to do this and really needs to be placed into a proper compost heap.
If it has not broken down it may be because:
It has not been left long enough
It hasn't spent enough time at the centre of the heap where the temperature is higher
It has been put on the garden, not on a compost heap
It hasn't been mixed with enough vegetable or organic matter
The worm population is not high enough
Hope this helps
Kind regards
Sue
Tetley GB Consumer Services
Discover more about Tetley by visiting www.tetley.co.uk or www.tetley.com
Find out about our membership of www.ethicalteapartnership.org working for a responsible tea industry

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MY RESPONSE

Dear Sue,
Perhaps you did not read my email or blogpost carefully enough otherwise you would not have replied with a P.R. "spin" type answer.
The facts are the plastic residue fibres that form the tea bag "ghost" net are not "normally so small they are not seen" - they are quite obvious. In a standard compost heap they are not easily seen because the turning process etc scrunches them up and "dirties" them by covering them with dark soil. Nevertheless, if you know they're there, they can be found. People do not want plastic in their compost.
As regards your advice, which clearly suggests you think I don't know the techniques of composting - I write a sustainability blog, don't you think it highly unlikely that I wouldn't know how to compost properly? In my wormery, which incidentally has a very high worm population, the worms rapidly eat the cellulose fibres, and the tea leaves, but leave the plastic - several years later, unsurprisingly, they have still not eaten the plastic and it has built up into impenetrable (for the worms) layers. I can tell you that unless you have plans to replace the plastic with something else natural, or a bioplastic that degrades to naturally occurring ingredients that worms can digest, you will be hearing more from the zero waste/sustainability/green movement.
sincerely,
Nick Palmer
For the planet - and the people - because they're worth it
blogspot "Sustainability and stuff according to Nick Palmer" http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com

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PG TIPS TEA

Hi,

Firstly, let me congratulate you and monkey on your sustainable/fair trade type policies. As you can see from my sign off I write a sustainability blog and I would like to ask you if the teabag paper that you use is fully biodegradable in a compost heap or wormery? I ask for the following reason. After several years of composting teabags in my wormery, I noticed a "net" of teabag "ghosts" building up which proved to be indigestible plastic residue. Perhaps it is easiest if you look at a blog post I did about this for more details.

http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com/2009/05/worms-tea-bags-and-tissues.html

This problem does not seem to be known at all in the composting fraternity and I am almost fighting a one-man campaign at the moment. Emma Cooper at the respected and widely read alternative kitchen garden and coopette.com blogs has just done a post based on my observations.

http://coopette.com/blog/tea-break

Nowadays, many people are trying to reduce their domestic waste and are trying to compost as much as they can so having plastic residue in their organic compost is not welcome.

Thanking you in advance.

Nick Palmer

On the side of the Planet - and the people - because they're worth it

Blogspot - Sustainability and stuff according to Nick Palmer
http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com

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REPLY

Hello from PG tips!
Dear Nick,
Thank you for your recent email.
In response to your query I would like to inform you that Pg tips are They are made of fibres and are bio-degradable and they can be made into compost. I hope this information will be of great use to you and thank you again for taking the time to contact us.
Kind regards,
Shabana Kausar
Careline Advisor
Unilever UK Limited Registered in England & Wales;
Company No 334527
Registered Office: Unilever House, Springfield Drive, Leatherhead, KT22 7GR
Unilever Ireland
Registered Office: 20 Riverwalk, National Digital Park, Citywest Business
Campus, Dublin 24

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MY RESPONSE

Dear PG tips,
If you had read my email, or my blogpost, properly you
would have realised that I already knew that the majority of a tea bag is compostable! I was referring to the plastic fibres that are a percentage of the teabag paper. These fibres, that are used for heatsealing the bag during manufacture are not biodegradeable and remain as a plastic residue which is not acceptable in compost. Please rethink your reply as it is not satisfactory. Your replies will be going on my blog and will be passed on to several other high profile ones too.
sincerely,
Nick Palmer
On the side of the Planet - and the people - because they're worth it
Blogspot - Sustainability and stuff according to Nick Palmer
http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com

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4 comments:

Emma said...

The response from Yorkshire Tea is most interesting :) It's a shame that the plastic is so widespread, though, and that they can legally get away with calling their tea bags 'compostable' when they clearly aren't.

Nick Palmer said...

Yes - I was surprised about this 95% compostable being "legally" OK. I don't think this is OK at all! It looks like a bit of a con but is probably pragmatically defined like that to enable local authorities to compost garden waste etc without worrying too much that their "customers" have taken all the plant labels and plastic string out of their green waste...

Maybe I'll pass this legal definition onto Friends of the Earth or similar to see what they say,

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
SARA HOWE
Director of Sustainability

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 knowledgable response.

I took your agent's initial response to mean that they assumed that the reason I was seeing tea bag "ghosts" was because I was failing to provide good composting conditions and their unspoken assumption 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?