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Co-op to launch plastic-free tea bags

165 million cups of tea are consumed every day in the UK (according to the UK Tea & Infusions Association), and 96 per cent of those cups are made using a bag rather than loose leaves – it makes for a lot of tea bags going into the food waste bin, and it may come as a surprise to some that they’re not entirely biodegradable.

Co-op set to launch plastic-free tea bags
Though councils do accept (and encourage) tea bags along with food waste, most of them contain around 25 per cent polypropylene, a non-biodegradable plastic used as sealant, which leaves a small amount of plastic present in the compost once the food waste has broken down.

Read Resource’s article on tea bags and what to do with them.

Now, Co-op Food has announced it will be the first retailer to roll out 100 per cent biodegradable bags in its own-brand tea, starting with its Fairtrade 99 blend to be followed by the entire range. The company sells around 4.6 million boxes of tea every year, equating to 367 million individual bags, and claims the switch to a plastic-free design could prevent nine tonnes of plastic per year making its way into compost and food waste collections.

Jo Whitfield, CEO of Co-op Food, said: “Many tea drinkers are blissfully unaware that the teabag from their daily cuppa is sealed using plastic. Even though it’s a relatively small amount, when you consider the six billion cups of tea that are brewed up every year in the 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.”

Welcoming Co-op's announcement was David Newman, Managing Director of the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA), which represents companies involved in the production of biodegradable polymers and products. He commented: "By being both industrially and home compostable, the new teabags will help show retailers, consumers and food service packaging producers that compostables are available and can solve recycling issues in a growing number of food products."

Newman also called for the extension of mandatory food waste collections to all councils in England, in order to ensure compostable materials actually end up as compost, rather than going into residual waste bins.

However, Charlie Trousdell, Chair of the Organics Recycling Group, explained to Resource that the amount of plastic in ordinary tea bags is so minute that they do not officially affect the quality of food waste or compost: “The tea bag-making process applies the polypropylene as fibres which melt creating the seals which stop the bag falling apart. Since they are fibres – we are talking a few microns thick here – they will not lead to a PAS [a quality standard for compost and digestate] failure or even be that visible during inspection, so it is hard to know their fate in the soil.”

While the long-term effects of plastic microfibres in soil may still be unclear, overwhelmingly the advice remains to keep recycling all tea bags with food waste, whether or not they contain polypropylene. 

Co-op’s eco tea bag, which the retailer plans to release later this year after the testing phase in February, is being developed in partnership with Co-op’s tea supplier Typhoo and Finnish company Ahlstrom-Munksjö, specialists in sustainable fibre solutions. The group is using a new method of sealing the bags with heat rather than plastic, something the UK Tea & Infusions Association has noted could lead to a rise in production costs.

A spokesperson from the association told the Guardian: “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.”

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