Composting tea bags – a plastic problem

Short version:

The bag that tea comes in for your morning brew will more likely than not contain plastic. Be wary of claims like ‘all plant based material’ as A-level kids often make plastic from potatoes as a Chemistry practical. This has actually become a sneaky post on looking at the little choices we make everyday that affect the environment. Hopefully this can help you look at what small changes are possible without feeling like you have to sacrifice too much.

I originally started writing about composting but then I started to ponder the plastic in tea bags. That’s the dangers of taking a tea break! Most tea bags are made from biodegradable materials but in order to make them heat sealable there needs to be some plastic in there. Don’t be fooled by the claim that a tea bag is completely made from plant-based material. That’s sometimes the marketing department being a little sneaky. You can make plastics out of plant material. It does break down – eventually. The problem is that biodegradable plastic could be worse for the soil (source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969718327219).

We compost tea bags. What we should do is remove the tea out of the bags for composting and put the actual bag into the bin, but if I’m 100% honest I’d have to admit that I sling in the tea bags just as they are about 95% of the time. I just can’t be bothered. Yes, they have little bit of plastic in them, but I don’t know if that’s going to do the soil, the plants or our health much harm. I use plastic pots to grow things in. I use wire supports that are coated in plastic and ties that have plastic. There will be some plastic residue in my soil anyway. I’ve found tiny bits of plastic chopped up in shop bought compost before. These are all macro plastics and not very damaging. Apparently, it’s the micro (1mm = 1000micrometres) and nano (1mm = 1000,000 nanometres) plastics that are more harmful. They harbour pathogens which can harm soil and plant health and these micro and nano plastics are the ones that get into the waterways when washed out of the soil. Looking into this I’ve found much more worrying things. Lots of developing countries recycle municipal waste into soil fertiliser. An admirable thing in a way, but with the large amount of plastic clothing (anything that is poly-something is a plastic) being washed, there is a large amount of microplastics ending up going through the pipes. There’s also been an increase in the use of plastic in farming techniques e.g. using thin plastic to cover the ground as a mulch and residues of plastic can wash off them.

I guess when all is considered I think that the existence of micro plastics in my soil is probably inevitable. It’s better to compost the tea bags than not at all and the stress from worrying about it (yes – I’m an eternal worrier) would probably be more damaging than ingesting anything taken up by the plants. Besides if there are microplastics leaking out of the tea bag… then… er… it’s already gone into my tea. Apparently, the presence of worms in the soil help with the damaging effects of micro plastics. When it comes down to it, the tea bags are only a small percentage of what we compost anyway. The tea bags are better off in compost than landfill, where micro and nano plastics could still leak into waterways.

The mind then wandered on from tea bags and I started thinking about how small changes make a difference. Yes, I should remove the bag and compost just the tea, but I could direct my effort to do something that makes a bigger difference. Composting tea bags is better than not. Small things don’t have to be perfect solutions. For now. I think in order to change human behaviour to negate some of the damage done to our environment we have to accept that it CAN be done in baby steps. If you start to consider the environmental impact that every single decision has in our daily routines it becomes so overwhelming that it’s easy to just give up. Even putting on a clean pair of polyester socks every day has an impact. Any beauty or cosmetic products we use, including handwash has an impact. Transport is a big issue and it’s not possible or practical for everyone to cycle or walk to work. The environmental impact of food miles and packaging are complicated issues. Things grown locally may have a larger carbon footprint than something with more food miles when you consider the growing conditions required and farming methods. Reducing packaging on some goods may lead to an increase in food spoilage, which then means more energy is used to process more food. Of course, growing some of your own food removes both the food miles and packaging problem.

So, here are just a few ideas that maybe you could try if you don’t already:

  • Grow some stuff – even herbs on a windowsill.
  • Recycle and/or compost what you can.
  • Talk about it to other people. Many of us aren’t aware of how little things can make a difference.
  • Toothpaste tablets instead of a tube version. There are also tablets you can dissolve in a glass of water to make mouthwash too.
  • Soap in cardboard or paper rather than bottled shower gel. My skin has not liked that change at all so it may not be a permanent change for me. If anyone knows of a great moisturising soap, I’d be so grateful if you’d post it in the comments. Though for it to be a permanent solution I’m afraid I must consider the costs too.
  • Shampoo bars to reduce plastic. Unfortunately, the better value ones aren’t so good for my hair. I have found a place on the high street that does a refill service for a shampoo and shower gel that I could try.
  • Who gives a crap? is a company that sells recycled loo and kitchen roll that comes in paper and cardboard packaging.
  • Second-hand stuff like clothes, toys and DVDs are also good for the pocket. My little one’s school does a great used uniform sale to raise money for the PTA – maybe you could encourage something like that in your local school if they don’t already.
  • Mend clothes or upcycle rather than buying new.
  • When you do buy new, consider natural fibre clothing. This is another hard one for us as it tends to be more expensive. Cotton and bamboo are great options. Viscose is also made from cellulose. The processing of viscose may use a large of amount of energy or chemicals but when you wash your laundry, any fibres that escape into the water will not be plastic.
  • Look for food with minimal packaging. Waitrose packages their minced meats in shrink wrap. All other supermarkets that I’ve seen uses lots of harder plastic packaging. Again, this isn’t something we can afford to do often.
  • Eat less meat. I’m afraid this is where our family falls very short. We eat meat every day. We could start by having a meat free day once a week.
  • Carry a bottle of water so you don’t buy bottled water if you get thirsty when out and about.
  • Carry a plastic bag folded up in your wallet or handbag.
  • If we’re luck enough to have a second child, we will make an effort to use cloth diapers (we know where we can get some second-hand ones). No promises. If we have another child as difficult in the first 6 months as our current monkey, I doubt I’ll be making the best choices.
  • I’ve heard with interest about menstrual pants, but I’ve yet to take the plunge.
  • Take a reusable cup to a coffee shop. The impact coffee growing has on the environment is a whole other issue, but we are talking about small changes for now. Baby steps.

If you can think of any easy things that anyone/everyone can do (obviously the menstrual pants won’t apply to over half of the population) then please do make suggestions in the comments. Also if you have any great experiences with any of the above or any insights feel free to comment.

Sources:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-50260687

https://ieep.eu/uploads/articles/attachments/3a12ecc3-7d09-4e41-b67c-b8350b5ae619/Plastic%20pollution%20in%20soil.pdf?v=63695425214

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969718327219

https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/plastic-planet-how-tiny-plastic-particles-are-polluting-our-soil

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/mar/23/food.ethicalliving

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/plastic-packaging-food-waste-global-warming-carbon-footprint-a8968541.html

So I’m not an expert in plants…

…but my garden is full of edibles…. and I’ve managed to keep it alive for another year! Yippee!!!

I am completely in awe of (and grateful) to the actual horticulturists who spend years studying and training so that they are able to breed hardier, tastier varieties, can tell us the best way of growing things and how to amend soil, or how to control pests, etc. However, I do feel that most (if not all) don’t have the true experience of only having a tiny (sometimes inhospitable) space. Also, when you garden for a living you can, or surely must, dedicate time and effort to this passion. The rest of us just squeeze it in where we can. Also, who wants to come home in the dark after work in winter and go tend to the garden? Yeah… I feel the same way.

Saying that though, there’s nothing more satisfying than eating food that I’ve grown myself. I love the thrill (yes thrill – don’t judge me) of growing edibles in the laziest way possible, as cheaply as possible, as sustainably as possible, using all the space as efficiently as possible and without all the special equipment and products.

I’ve learnt everything I know from pouring over books, scouring the internet and a bit of experimentation in my own garden – but even that is informed by the experimentation of those who have come before me. In this information rich world, we stand on the shoulders of others and most of our knowledge is built on other people’s work. I certainly didn’t discover for myself that raspberries, blueberries and kiwis need acidic soil… and I certainly didn’t breed the hardy variety of kiwi that grows outdoors in my London garden. I, therefore, only think it’s fair that I pass on everything that I have learnt hopefully to inform and inspire anyone, everyone to grow their own food. Of course, with my little garden I’m not living The Good Life, but I can at least say that in a good year our garden supplies maybe 30% of our vegetables and I’m hoping to increase that by growing more hardy perennials that thrive despite neglect.

My blog possibly has some selfish roots too, as much of our current lifestyle is not environmentally friendly. The pollution levels in cities are incredibly damaging to all who live there, especially children. Growing some of your own food, however little, makes a difference. I’m no eco warrior. There’s plenty of guilty pleasures that I can’t give up. I just hope that growing our own edibles could be one of the small changes we could make, especially in cities to make a small difference. For every plant you grow, that’s carbon dioxide being removed, and oxygen being added to your immediate environment. For every single thing you eat out of your garden, that’s zero food miles and zero packaging. Think not of just the disposal or recycling of our supermarket packaging, but also the energy required in its manufacturing. That’s also food grown without damage to the environment if you choose not to use pesticides or fertilisers (I’ll also add an article later about how fertilisers can also be bad) and, of course, in your garden you won’t be practising single crop farming. I aim to add articles about how to reuse or recycle things which is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than buying special equipment that, again, requires energy in its manufacture and transport. Lastly in my deranged growing edibles evangelism sermon, I’d like to highlight that, from watching us grow our own, little ones can develop a better respect and understanding of how food is produced. It’s the younger generation that seem to be leading the fight to reverse our environmental impact.   

In this blog I’ll add details on all the things I’ve grown that I would (and even wouldn’t recommend) growing for certain spaces and situations. I’ll give suggestions and ideas on how to build things and use things as cheaply as possible. I’ll be happy to share my mistakes so you can also see what not to do. Lastly, I’m afraid the science teacher in me may also feel the need to add some science-y info on things like eutrophication. You could google that – or watch this space!   

Hopefully I have you convinced if not at least interested. So I’ll get off my soap box and wish you Happy Growing!

Jessi