Pressure grows on Teabag producers to remove plastic, after UCC research

25 April 2021
By Mary Bermingham
mary@TheCork.ie

Research investigates how teabags affect the environment after they are discarded

Ireland is a nation of tea drinkers, but many perhaps don’t realise that their favourite cuppa could impact the environment for centuries[i].

Scientists in University College Cork (UCC) conducted new research to better understand the effect that Ireland’s tea drinking habits is having on the environment. The research, commissioned by Lyons Tea, independently investigated nine well-known tea brands in Ireland, revealing surprising findings. Three brands have introduced biodegradable teabags to its ranges, meaning they can decompose into the environment and the ranges of six brands do not biodegrade.

Here’s the ‘tea’ about Ireland’s teabags

The process undertaken for UCC’s study focused on two experiments. The first was an outdoor experiment which buried the teabags in organic soil[ii], emulating real-life environmental conditions, and a second chemical test which verified these results. To learn more about the experiments, watch this video.

The research concluded that Lyons Tea is the only major[iii] black tea brand whose entire range biodegrades completely into the environment, fully degrading in less than 75 days. Interestingly, according to independent research[iv]73% of shoppers dispose of all teabags into a food waste (brown) bin but the scientific experiments prove that Lyons Tea is the only full major black tea range in Ireland that can be disposed of in this way.

Other major tea ranges either remained intact or in a brittle form during the same tests. The ranges that do not biodegrade use a petroleum-based plastic called polypropylene. Polypropylene is a non-biodegradable plastic that will produce microplastics and can remain in the environment for a very long time.

Lyons Tea calls on all Irish tea brands to switch to a fully biodegradable range

Dr Mateos Cárdenas explained that as Lyons Tea is still the only major black tea brand in Ireland that will completely biodegrade across its entire range, there are teabags from all other tea brand ranges that are polluting the environment. Some other brands have made positive changes, including another well-known Irish tea brand that recently introduced biodegradable teabags to parts of its range. While these brands appear to still be on a journey as some teabags across these ranges still contain plastic, it is a much-needed step in the right direction to achieving true sustainability in the Irish tea sector.

Commenting on the findings of the study, Fiachra Moloney, General Manager Tea Division, Unilever UK & Ireland said

“We’ve worked really hard to ensure our Lyons Tea bags are plant-based and biodegradable and it’s not been without its challenges, but we’ve now removed 100 tonnes of petroleum-based plastic from our tea bags since making the switch. This is the equivalent of 20 million standard plastic bags. We know Irish tea drinkers are looking for easy ways to reduce their plastic consumption and we’re hoping other tea brands in Ireland can follow Lyons Tea and become plant-based in the future.”

Dr Alicia Mateos Cárdenas added

While it is great to see that some tea brands are producing more environmentally friendly teabag solutions, two thirds of Ireland’s tea ranges still contain a petroleum-based plastic. It is important that all tea brands make the switch to fully plant based and biodegradable ranges, which will contribute to reducing plastic pollution. Consumers can control the impact of their tea drinking on the environment by educating themselves on which teabags contain plastic and consciously drinking a range that does not. It’s small changes like this that go a long way to protecting our planet”.

Footnotes

[ii] Organic soil may accelerate experiment

[iii] Major tea brands refer to those with >10% share of sales value (%) Nielsen Total Tea MAT 27 DEC 2020

[iv] According to research conducted by iReach Insights of 1,000 Irish adults in October 2020

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