An update on plant-based tea bags

Posted in Environment.

An update on plant-based tea bags

Plant-based tea bags

About half of our UK Yorkshire Tea bags are now plant-based.

That’s all the boxes in sizes 40, 160 and 240, and it applies to normal Yorkshire Tea as well as Yorkshire Gold, Yorkshire Tea Decaf and Yorkshire Tea for Hard Water.

Boxes of 210 are close behind and by the summer our boxes of 80 tea bags should all be plant-based too.

There’s a table below that shows what’s already switched and what’s coming up, and we’ll keep that updated. The plant-based packs won't look any different, but you can double check by looking at the best before date - that info's in the table too.

There are also some FAQs if you scroll down.

Tea bags aren’t the only thing that’s changing. All our products are now carbon neutral, and what we want next is for all our packaging to be "circular" – which means made from renewable, plant-based or recycled materials, and reusable, recyclable or compostable after use. You can find out more here.

FAQs

What does “plant-based” mean?

We're replacing the oil-based plastic that seals our tea bags with a plant-based plastic called polylactic acid, or PLA.

PLA is a newer form of plastic, made from plants (like cornstarch) instead of fossil fuels, which can be industrially composted by local councils. It’s the material that most of the UK tea industry is switching to or has already switched to.

It’s better for the environment than oil-based plastic – as long as it goes in the right bin.

You might’ve seen PLA teabags called "biodegradable", "plastic free" or "home compostable". You can read a bit more about why we don’t use those terms below.

How do people dispose of them?

They can go in kerbside garden waste or food waste bins, to go off for composting by your local council.

If you don’t have either of these, you can snip open your used tea bags, compost the tea inside at home, and put the bag itself in your refuse bin. If you don’t want to do that, the alternative is to put your tea bag in your refuse bin.

Are they plastic free?

PLA tea bags are sometimes called “plastic free”, but we’ve never used that label and WRAP, the people behind the UK Plastics Pact, also advise against it because plant-based plastics are still plastics.

However, PLA is made from renewable materials instead of fossil fuels and it can be industrially composted instead of going to landfill or incineration. If it’s disposed of in the right way, then it will completely break down into its natural components.

Are they biodegradable?

Technically, but nobody really knows yet what the timescales are for PLA to biodegrade naturally. So WRAP UK advises against using the word “biodegradable” saying: "It might mislead users to think that something will automatically biodegrade in a reasonable timeframe”

Their worry is that some tea drinkers might think biodegradable means they'll break down quickly and naturally in landfill or home compost. There’s also concern that terms like “biodegradable” and “compostable” may increase littering.

The truth is that PLA tea bags are really only better than oil-based plastic if they go in the right bin: garden waste or food waste bins, for industrial composting by your local council.

Can they be composted at home?

WRAP UK doesn’t recommend home composting and we haven’t yet seen any good studies showing that this PLA part will break down in the sort of time gardeners would think is reasonable. The conditions on home compost heaps just don’t seem quite right – UK temperatures don’t get hot enough to fully compost our tea bags.

That’s why we recommend sending plant-based tea bags for industrial composting by your local council (via your food or garden waste bin). You can also snip open your used tea bags, compost the tea inside at home, and put the bag itself in the appropriate bin.

What about people who don’t have a food waste or garden waste bin, or whose council doesn’t accept tea bags in garden waste bins?

Composting generally involves the sort of big composting facility (known as “industrial composting”) that councils use for food waste and garden waste.

The Government has pledged to provide all households with a food waste bin by 2023. Until then, sadly not everyone will be able to compost our PLA tea bags. Like a lot of new materials created to replace the less sustainable stuff we’ve all relied on for ages, PLA’s far from perfect.

If you don’t yet have a bin to industrially compost your tea bags, we’re really sorry. If you’re willing to, you can snip open your used tea bags and compost the tea inside at home; otherwise, please put your tea bags in your refuse bin.

What else is a tea bag made from?

By weight, 95% of a Yorkshire Tea bag is tea and 5% is the bag. About ¾ of that bag is natural fibres like wood pulp, rayon (made from wood pulp) and abaca (a kind of banana plant) which make a kind of paper.

That paper doesn’t stick to itself, so when it’s made it’s interwoven with a plastic web, which can be very quickly heated at the edges of the bag to seal it all together. Traditionally this plastic has been oil-based (polypropylene) and our new tea bags use plant-based plastic instead (PLA).

Why’s it taken us longer than some companies?

We were actually going pretty fast at first. Back in 2018 we tested PLA on Yorkshire Gold, thought we'd got the hang of it, rolled it out across loads more of the range – and then had a total disaster. The sealing on some bags wasn't working properly and they fell apart in people's mugs, getting us all over the front of the tabloids.

PLA, it turned out, is a lot trickier to work with than oil-based plastic. So we rolled back and went back to testing and trialling. We've tried a ton of stuff, including refurbishing our machines and tweaking all sorts of settings - and everything made a difference, but nothing fixed the problem completely.

Then we called in Sheffield University, who helped us study the tea bag paper. We used what we learned to work with the supplier to redevelop it.

Things were going great again, and then the pandemic hit. Covid has brought big changes for factories, and keeping our staff distanced meant keeping production simple and. You’ll have seen pictures of panic buying and empty shelves, and it was really all we could do to keep tea flowing out the door fast enough to get it to people.

So we paused the PLA rollout at around 20% and it stayed paused until around October. Now, at last, we’re on the final stretch.

Will all our tea bags be plant-based now?

The boxes above cover 94% of what we make, which is why they were first on the list. Once we get to smaller products, things get more fiddly – so tea bags we export, our speciality brews (Biscuit Brew, Toast & Jam Brew, Bedtime Brew) and some of our 480 packs will be switched later.

That’s not all we have to change. This is really just the start of a ton of stuff we’ve got to fix, like getting rid of the plastic wrap from our boxes, making our loose leaf packaging and catering-sized bags recyclable, and quite a lot of other tea (and coffee) packaging that our company, Taylors of Harrogate, makes.

The long term aim is for all our packaging to become "circular" – which means made from renewable, plant-based or recycled materials, and reusable, recyclable or compostable after use. You can find out more about those aims here.

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