Winter is in full swing. Days are short and cold, and all I dream of is curling up on the sofa with a cup of tea and a book.
The other day I was running some errands for my Mum, and she asked me to pick up a box of nettle leaf tea. With no alternative, aside from having to wait until spring and forage for fresh nettles, I bought a packet at the pharmacy and, although the box is cardboard, and the bags inside are compostable, the whole thing was wrapped in very thin plastic film.
Hence the title of this post, sounding vaguely like a commercial slogan, but ringing true to this week’s topic. Apologies to all the coffee and other hot beverage drinkers (shout out to fans of Bovril, a British staple), but I’m going to get tea-technical here.
Many of you might be avid loose tea drinkers and have never bought a tea bag in your life. But in the UK, and across the whole of Europe, bagged tea is very common and widely consumed but, still, not all teas are created equal. They range in leaf quality, price, taste and in the number of available variations (from black, green, red, white to flavoured infusions such as lemon & ginger, etc.).
However, they all have in common one thing: packaging. With a varying number of layers of packaging, some tea is more recycling- and eco-friendly than others but all start with a bag.
Bags are made from a variety of materials, from 100% nylon thread, cotton and nylon blend, paper and polypropylene blend, abaca fibres (derived from a type of banana), wood pulps and plant cellulose fibres. Only 100% natural bags (cotton, abaca, wood and plant fibre) are compostable. However, most manufacturers use bags which are made from mixed materials or contain a plastic seal affixing the string to the teabag.
The nylon- and polypropylene-blend bags release microplastics which are ingested with the tea and pass through our digestive system. It is yet unclear whether microplastics are harmful to humans, and we will need many long-term studies before science gives us an answer. I will let you make your mind up about this for now. 😉
Some manufacturers then wrap each tea bag separately to preserve freshness and to avoid wrapping the whole box in plastic film. Ironically, these envelopes are usually made of paper lined with plastic and printed with polyester-based inks. This, in turn, makes the wrappers difficult to recycle, especially considering the drastic differences between council/county kerb collection rules.
Some manufacturers are more mindful of the type of waste created through their products. One of my favourite brands of tea is individually wrapped but uses paper coated with a thin layer of BPA- and PVC- free plastic, as well as vegetable-based inks. Although that doesn’t make the bag compostable, it can be recycled alongside the normal paper. And as much as I love loose leaf mint tea, I still buy peppermint & liquorice packaged tea and consider it a special treat.
The biggest offenders here are the brands offering tea in thick plastic bags. These often contain large numbers of teabags, however, it’s difficult to weigh the damage done between buying such a bulk amount versus smaller carton box. Many of the packets are printed with plastic-based inks and come with an extra layer of plastic film (which prompted this post) preserving the freshness of the tea inside.
Whether you’re a tea drinker or not, there’s one overarching lesson here: these days plastic is hidden in plain sight. From inks to fibres used in the production of tea, it is difficult to get away from it. And although some of the plastic packagings can be recycled I wouldn’t want to drink any tea knowing I am also drinking parts of the packaging too. The best way to avoid having to dispose of three layers of superfluous packaging is to drink loose leaf (bought in bulk whenever you can).
Meanwhile, I will be searching for alternatives to suggest to my mum, and urge her to go for a nice long hike this summer and stock up on fresh leaves she can dry for later use. And to finish things off here’s a simple recipe for a truly English brew:
- One bag of English ‘everyday’ tea (this can be any ‘English Traditional’ or ‘Breakfast’ tea)
- Freshly boiled water, from an electric or stovetop kettle (not microwaved)
- Fresh semi-skimmed milk 2%
- Sugar (white, brown or even sweetener, to taste) Optional alternatives: lemon juice or honey, or plain black.
Pour freshly boiled water over single tea bag in your favourite mug or cup. Let brew for 60-90s. Take out the tea bag, pour in milk until desired colour is achieved (similar to Americano with milk), add sugar, stir.
Enjoy. With or without a biscuit, any time of day or night.
How I make it: with oat milk, or with lemon and honey. How do you?