Compostable tea bags: a step towards sustainable brewing

As the demand for sustainable tea bags grows, a logical first step is the use of compostable bio-plastic materials such as PLA, but converting is not without its challenges. By Kathryn Brand

Within the specialty tea segment, loose-leaf tea has its advocates, yet tea bags remain a popular and convenient way in which most tea consumers will brew the beverage. However, with 68 percent of consumers drinking tea every day in the UK alone, 21 percent of whom drink between four to five cups a day, according to Statista, this mass consumption of single-use tea bags produces significant amounts of waste, much of which ends up in landfills. As consumer awareness of this builds, the pressure on tea brands to ensure sustainability within their operations is paramount, hence manufacturers must continue to meet the rapidly growing demand for sustainably made tea bags.

Tea bags are commonly made of bleached paper, plastic or nylon, and sealed with glue, resulting in a product that will not fully biodegrade and can contribute to the contamination of soil and waterways with microplastics. Fortunately, there has been much innovation in recent years, with many manufacturers making the switch to compostable bio-plastic-based materials, known as PLA (polylactic acid), normally made from corn or sugarcane, rather than petroleum.

Clipper Tea was among the first to make the switch in 2018, bringing to market its “world first’ unbleached, plant-based, non-GM, and fully compostable tea bags,” said Adele Ward, marketing director, Ecotone UK, Clipper Tea’s parent company. Clipper was driven by the ethical and sustainable principles it was founded on to make the change with its tea bags, but customer demand has also incentivised others.

Taylor Clayton, sustainability impact manager at Traditional Medicinals, commented, “While the launch [of its BPI-certified compostable tea wrapper] was partially inspired by the company’s vision to be a leader in finding solutions to plastic waste, we did also [consider] the feedback of our customers who feel just as passionately as we do about protecting the environment.”

Image: Traditional Medicinals

Tecpacking, while manufacturing tea bag packing machines, also produces tea-bag packing material, most of which are PLA-based and compostable, and Paul Zhang, sales manager, Tecpacking, revealed that while there was certainly some demand from customers, the company felt that it was how different industries were moving forward. “Tecpacking is committed to driving sustainable solutions to ensure that the company is directly an enabler within sustainability, so we promote the compostable material to our customers,” said Zhang.

The costs of converting

Whether companies make the switch due to customer pressure or their own sustainability principles, the demand is undoubtedly there, especially among “boutique and eco-conscious tea drinkers and tea brands,” which is where One Earth’s managing director, Erin Heryford, has noted the increase. One Earth manufactures its tea bag material in the US from non-GMO sugar cane, using a dry process so there is no waste water or water contamination, further reducing the impact of its tea bags on the environment. The eco-conscious may be driving the change towards compostable tea bags across the industry but the demand is widespread and increasing in enthusiasm.

The PLA-based compostable tea bag material used, is undoubtedly strides ahead of the conventional wrappers containing petroleum-based plastic, in terms of sourcing, waste, and consumer health, but there is still progress needed. Tecpacking’s and One Earth’s tea bag wrappers, as well as the wrappers used by Traditional Medicinals and Clipper, are only fully compostable in a commercial or industrial facility, rather than at home in a garden compost bin. Unlike biodegradability, which is a natural process where microorganisms degrade materials into simple components like biomass, carbon dioxide and water, compostability requires human intervention to contribute water and oxygen for the materials to fully break down.

“BPI-certified packaging – or packaging that meets the most stringent standards for biodegradability and eco-friendliness – requires ‘industrial aerated composting’ to fully breakdown, and this composting process only happens in a commercial-scale composting facility. In the simplest terms, in order to ensure a product truly breaks down and returns to the earth, leaving no harmful residue behind, it must be industrially composted,” explained Clayton.

In landfill, the material will break down faster than wrappers containing plastic but will still produce harmful GHGs (greenhouse gases) as a byproduct it breaks down, whereas in an industrial composting facility, the conditions are optimised for the material to break down efficiently, minimising GHG production, as well as producing a saleable product as a result: compost, farm fertiliser, or biogas. Therefore, the sustainability of the PLA-based tea bag wrappers is unavoidably reliant on the manner of which its end consumer is willing or able to dispose of it. Most consumers do not have access to industrial composting facilities, or if they do, lack the willing or awareness to separate out the conforming items. In the US, only 15 percent of consumers currently have access to an industrial composting facility, according to Clayton, and in the UK, where the figures are better but still low, almost half – 160 councils, covering 11.7 million households – of local authorities do not provide any food waste collection for their residents.

“We acknowledge that, due to limited availability, industrial composting is somewhat of an imperfect solution, however, it is the only viable option for breaking down compostable packaging at scale. We strongly believe that this is a waste solution that we should support and advocate for, and we feel that we are leading by example with the launch of this BPI-certified tea wrapper,” said Clayton, adding, “it is our hope that as more and more companies take a stance like us on the importance of industrial composting, that more and more facilities will become available.”

Having the necessary infrastructure and end-consumer awareness are not the only challenges facing bio-based tea bag material producers and tea brands. Like with so many other food and drink packaging formats, “The main challenge with compostable wrappers is finding a packaging material that effectively protects the stability of the ingredients within while also meeting biodegradability standards,” commented Clayton.

There needs to be a balance between the material being food-safe and non-detrimental to the shelf life of the product, to minimise food waste, while simultaneously being sustainable and biodegradable, to which there is seemingly slim overlap. Ward added, “It’s not an easy (or a cheap) switch. The challenge is sourcing an effective sealant that will prevent the two sides of the paper from separating and releasing the tea leaves into the cup. Clipper’s compostable heat-seal tea bag was the result of an extensive period of detailed trials and material sourcing.”

Once the appropriate material is found, the challenges do not stop there; “the traditional plastic envelope material is soft and flexible, but compostable material is a bit harder and difficult to form,” explained Zhang, and therefore the packing machine used needs to be adapted accordingly, requiring a high capital expenditure, which is a hurdle for large companies, but possibly an insurmountable barrier for smaller companies.

Image: One Earth

This is something One Earth recognises; “We work with some co-packers so that the One Earth tea and coffee filter material can be accessible to smaller tea brands,” shared Heryford, a move which is necessary for the industry as a whole to progress sustainably.

The cost of the wrapper material itself is also higher, as Clayton revealed, “Increased costs are mostly due to the use of novel, bio-based materials, such as the PLA layer in the wrapper. The bio-based inputs include more processing steps from farm to manufacturing.” But the costs should come down as it is more widely produced and used.

“Compostable tea bag material has still not captured the mass share of the market,” said Zhang, likely due to the manufacturing, disposal and cost challenges given, and until it does, manufacturers and consumers are having to absorb the additional costs associated with making the sustainable choice.

Challenges remain

Tenacity is undoubtedly necessary on the journey towards sustainability, and while there may still be numerous challenges associated with biodegradable tea bags, they are being met with innovation and persistence. Zhang explained that Tecpacking has “three points to do in the future: first is to try our best to work with our raw material suppliers to make good compostable material, second is to improve our machine to make it suitable and easy to run the compostable material, and third is to recommend and promote the compostable material to all of our customers, to try to make 100 percent of [our] customers use compostable material.” He noted that Tecpacking is a global company operating in local markets like Sri Lanka, the Netherlands, and the US, with different partners. “Our sourcing is within the local communities, and we drive the empowerment of these local communities,” as sustainability is about people as much as it is about resources.

Meanwhile, One Earth has a research lab in Naples, Florida, where it continues to develop its compostable and biodegradable products. With Traditional Medicinals’ global advocation of sustainable materials to its customers, and Clipper’s holistic approach to reduce packaging weight and improve recyclability, strides are being taken to counter decades of willful indolence by manufacturers and consumers alike.

Matching the innovation with the infrastructure and awareness needed remains a challenge, as, even if PLA packaging becomes widespread, there need to be means by which consumers can dispose of it in a way that makes the sustainability efforts of the manufacturer worthwhile. Although, it could be argued, that placing almost the full responsibility of the sustainability of a product on the consumer, rather than on the manufacturer which produced the product in the first place, may be a misdirection of accountability, and unsustainable in the long term. However, most will agree action is needed along the entirety of the supply chain, all the way to the consumer, to drive lasting and necessary change.

  • Kathryn Brand is an associate editor on T&CTJ, while still writing for several of Bell’s other magazines. She joined Bell Publishing as an editorial assistant at the beginning of 2022 after graduating from the University of East Anglia with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. She may be reached at: [email protected].

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