I drink tea. Lots of it. Sometimes 10-15 cups a day. Austrian tea doesn’t do it for me – far too weak. US tea was equally disappointing. Five Roses in South Africa is a satisfyingly strong cup, but my all-time favourite has to be Tetley.

In addition to drinking tea, I rather like to grow things. Mainly chillies (they are so pretty!), but also tomatoes, herbs, grapes, courgettes, whatever has seeds and can be planted, really. So imagine my delight when I read somewhere that tea is a great addition to soil. From that moment on, I was chopping up tea bags and mixing them into my plant soil, feeling terribly virtuous that I wasn’t adding to the bio waste bin more than needed.

Imagine, too, my surprise when a few months later, I discovered that my teabags simply weren’t breaking down. It was at that point that I consulted Google on the subject and realised that not all teabags are biodegradable! As I drink Tetley teabags – 1-2 catering packs of 1100 each to save on individual packing – I was interested in what they had to say, which was this:

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’, established 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

What this essentially means is that I have been drinking vast quantities plastic for years! Or if not plastic, hot liquid in which plastic has been allowed to stew for a bit…  For years, I have unwittingly been adding plastic to the bio waste. And for the last few months, I have been trying to nurture my beloved plants with a mixture of tea and plastic. In reality, my plants won’t be much affected as I didn’t use that many tea bags and I can scoop out the teabag skeletons and throw them away with minimal negative effects, but as for the rest…

Huh? What’s polypropylene?

The Environmental Working Group in the US classes polypropylene as “low to moderate hazard” but there have been reports of polypropylene containers leaching chemicals which have “potent effects on enzymes and proteins“.

Teabags would only add a low amount of that “low to moderate hazard” to a compost heap or to plants, although I think that if possible it’s best to avoid it altogether. Given how much tea I consume, however, and given that I pour boiling water over my teabags, I am putting a particular “stress” on the plastic which means that the polypropylene  is more likely to leach chemicals. Lovely…

My solution

I could research all the options out there, finding companies who make teabags that are fully biodegradable with no plastic, but I don’t have the time for that. There are some lovely people who have already done this if you’re interested, including the lovely Lindsay Miles who wrote about this here. Add to that my new-found knowledge that I am probably wasting around 13 square metres of paper each year whilst I’m drinking my plastic-filled tea, it seems that teabags are simply not the way to go at all.

Instead, whilst I’m finishing off the last of my Tetley teabag supply over the next month or two, I shall be looking for loose-leaf alternatives. That’s less plastic for me, less for my plants, less for the planet, less that will find its way into the ocean and less paper use, too. So lots of wins.

We’ll have to see about the taste though – a story for the future!

In the meanwhile, here are a few useful, related articles that might be of interest.