When you hear ‘plastic’ your mind would naturally think of polythene bags, buckets, spoons, toothbrush and such other items made from plastic used in the home, offices, cars, phones, syringes, including plastic needles for transfusing blood and infusions in hospitals as well as packaging food products. There are hundreds of other ways that different types of plastic materials are used today, including the hair and nail attachments that women are now crazy about.
Plastic by its nature is not easily biodegradable. That is why there is an ongoing global campaign to reduce the use of plastic materials and to discover new ways to recycle used plastic materials into other useable items. Today, there is a drive to create innovative and more eco-friendly biodegradable materials for packaging of products, so that when the packaging is thrown away, nature can break down the components into fertilizer for enhancing soil productivity and increase farm yield.
One area in which plastic is used in the food industry is in the production of teabags. Until recently, the majority of people who love to drink tea brewed from teabags never knew that plastic is used in packaging tea leaves to produce teabags.
“Many tea drinkers are blissfully unaware that the teabag from their daily cup is sealed using plastic,’ said Jo Whitfield, chief executive of Co-op Food, in a report published by Worldteanews.
“Even though it’s a relatively small amount, when you consider the 6 billion cups of tea that are brewed up every year in the United Kingdom, UK, we are looking at around 150 tonnes of polypropylene – that’s an enormous amount of accumulated plastic waste that is either contaminating food waste compost collections or simply going to landfill.”
The report further stated that the global campaign against plastic waste was being extended to target teabags, from which the United Kingdom’s favourite beverage, tea, is brewed. It noted that a major UK chain had reached the final stages of developing a fully biodegradable paper teabag that does not contain plastic.
The Co-op is to make its own branded teabags, Fairtrade 99, free of polypropylene, a sealant used industry wide to enable teabags to hold their shape, and the guilt-free brew is due to go on sale by the end of this year.
The scale of the problem of plastic in teabags is huge. According to the trade body the UK Tea and Infusions Association, teabags account for a whopping 96 per cent of the 165 million cups of tea drunk every day in the UK. Anti-plastic campaigners have been appealing to consumers to use loose tea or “greener” options such as Japanese-style “pyramids” made of 100 per cent compostable corn starch, but these are more expensive than mainstream mass-produced teabags.
The Co-op, which sells 4.6m boxes of tea a year (about 367m teabags) has joined forces with its tea supplier, Typhoo, and Ahlstrom-Munksjö, both of which are specialists in sustainable fibre solutions, to develop a method of heat-sealing bags to eliminate the more widely used plastic seal.
The biodegradable bag will undergo rigorous testing next month and could be on shelves later this year. It is intended to be rolled out across the Co-op’s entire own-label standard tea range and will be fully compostable in food waste collections.
But the UK Tea and Infusions Association warned of higher prices for consumers. A spokesman said: “The UK tea industry has been experimenting with non-plastic sealing methods, but those methods are costly. The raw material cost and upgrades to machinery would increase the cost of a bag by about eight times if we were to move to a non-plastic sealing procedure now. We know that a significant price rise would have a severely negative effect on sales and seriously reduce the income of farmers from some of the poorest tea-growing regions of the world.”