*SOME environmental activists get worked up about rainforests. Others worry about the plight of polar bears or the perils of rising sea levels.
But for Diana Fox Carney, an economist, green guru and wife of the new Governor of the Bank of England, the issue that gets her really, really hot under the collar is the humble tea bag. She describes the leaf-filled sachets as one of her 'pet hates' and says they are an environmental disaster. "Yes, they can be pretty, and convenient, but do we really need an extra 40cm squared of bleached and printed paper with every cup of tea?" she writes on her blog, which reviews eco-friendly products.
For those millions who adore the convenience of the tea bag, it was enough to make us choke on our Tetley's. So does Mrs. Fox Carney have a point? And are tea bags really doing untold harm to the planet? - news.com.au*
The Scale of the Tea bag Menace
The tea bag was invented by accident more than 100 years ago by American merchant Thomas Sullivan, who decided to send samples of tea to customers in small silk pouches. Some people were confused - assuming that the bags were supposed to be dunked in hot water just like traditional metal tea infusers.
When Sullivan heard what they were doing, he spotted a gap in the market. Thus, serendipitously, the tea bag was born. At first, there were complaints that the mesh of the bags was too fine, so he replaced the silk with gauze. And as tea bags entered mass production, cheaper paper was used instead. At first, the British were reluctant to abandon loose leaf tea, but by the 1950s, when families were embracing new labour-saving gadgets like never before, tea bags took off. Bill Gorman, of the UK Tea Council, credits the tea bag with saving the tea industry. "We would not be drinking the volume of tea we do now without them,' he says - and he would know. "The UK is the second-largest tea market per person in the world. Ireland is first. Without tea bags, the industry would be on its knees."
Are they a waste of paper?
Major brands such as PG Tips and Tetley no longer use wood pulp to make their paper, but a vegetable fibre derived from the abaca plant - a relative of the banana grown mostly in Indonesia and South America. However, we certainly use a lot of it - according to the Tea Council, around 96 per cent of the tea we make are made with tea bags. It adds up to a lot of paper, particularly when so many tea bags are no longer rectangular - the least wasteful design for a tea bag - but round or pyramid-shaped.
A PG Tips pyramid bag, for instance, is made from a rectangle of perforated filter paper approximately 70cm square. A traditional square tea bag, on the other hand, uses around 50cm square of paper. So a tea lover who drinks five cups a day will get through 13 sq m of perforated paper each year. A couple living with two teenage children could get through 50 sq m of tea bag paper each year.
Side Story: environmental protection
It seems a lot, but not when put in perspective. According to a paper industry survey a few years ago, the typical Briton uses 80 to 90 rolls of loo paper each year. Meanwhile, the 50 sq m of tea bag paper we use is the equivalent of only around two or three rolls of quality loo paper. If you count all the paper, cardboard, packaging, papers and phone directories, the typical family uses the equivalent of six trees a year. The 50 sq m of thin bag paper pales in comparison.
What about bleach?
Unless you buy from an environmentally-friendly company which uses unbleached bags, most of us consume clean, white tea bags that are the result of intensive chemical processes. Once, the wood pulp or vegetable fibre used in tea bags was bleached with chlorine to make it white rather than an unappealing grey. However, bleaching attracted criticism from environmentalists because minute amounts of potentially toxic by-products such as dioxins and furans, chemicals which cause harm when ingested, could remain in the paper and could leak into a cup or mug.
The industry always insisted that the levels of these chemicals were far too small to pose a health risk. But there were concerns that even tiny amounts could be linked to cancer, hormone disorders and developmental problems. Manufacturers have now replaced chlorine with chlorine dioxide - an agent that produces far fewer toxic by-products - or chlorine-free bleach in the past couple of decades. The industry and food regulators say levels are well within safe limits.
According to Government waste body Wrap, tea is the largest element of 'avoidable food waste' in our dustbins. Wrap estimates that tea drinkers in Britain alone throw out 370,000 tonnes of tea bags and tea leaves each year, along with vegetable peelings, onion skins and coffee grinds. Most of this ends up in landfill sites. Wrap says the environmental impact of tea bags could easily be reduced if people simply threw the bags on the compost heap or flower beds. But it's not that simple. For while most of a tea bag is made from biodegradable paper, around 20 to 30 per cent is not.
In order to stop tea bags bursting open in transit or in the cup, many are sealed with a strip of heat-resistant polypropylene plastic. That plastic doesn't compost, even after a few years, and gardeners often find these small plastic meshes amid their homemade compost (along with those non-biodegradable stickers that are found on fresh fruit such as apples). Wrap insists that the small amount of plastic in a teabag won't cause any harm to plants and can simply be picked out of the compost heap by hand. Wrap does, however, recommend that if you wish to speed up the composting process, you should rip open the bags.
A storm in a teacup?
For environmental groups such as Friends Of The Earth, Greenpeace and WWF, teabags are some way down their list of priorities. These charities certainly have concerns about the way forests are cleared to plant tea bushes, rivers and streams are diverted to irrigate plantations and the terrible working conditions of pickers. But their websites don't have pages devoted to the PG Tips threat or calls to boycott the Tetley tea bag. With good reason. In a world where there are genuine environmental problems, anxieties about mostly compostable teabags are misplaced. If you are concerned about anything when making your 4 o'clock cup of tea, worry about the cost and waste of putting too much water into kettles. The Government's Energy Saving Trust worked out that two-thirds of people regularly overfill kettles when making tea. A single household could save $13 a year on their electricity bill by boiling only the water they needed. The savings from one week of careful filling would be enough to power a television for a day. And it would slash greenhouse gas emissions.
In fact, tea bags can actually reduce waste. Few people making a pot of loose leaf tea measure out the leaves precisely - and many use too much. Using a pre-filled bag eliminates that problem. So when eco-warriors start banging on about tea bags, the best advice is quietly slip out of the room and make yourself a nice, soothing cuppa.