Recycling Tea Bags – The Problem of Plastic

 Croydon resident Ian Hunter has been corresponding this month by email with Cabinet member Stuart Collins about the Council’s advice that tea bags can be added into food waste caddies for collection despite the fact that many brands contain plastic.

Ian says: ‘In my experience, the outer cover of a teabag  is a plastic material.  I suspect this because, until recently, I used to put the used teabags into my garden compost bin.  After 18 months, or so, I emptied one such bin, to find that the teabag covers had not   broken down.  I therefore laboriously separated then from the compost and am currently putting the material in the landfill container, which is collected fortnightly.

I do not know exactly where or how the food waste is re-cycled but if the teabag covers are not separated from any mastication process, the plastic could inevitably be introduced into the food chain as material  used by farmers or gardeners as a soil enhancer.

I think that an urgent technical evaluation of the material used to produce teabags, and other similar covers, should take place with a view to removing them from the food chain.   Pending the result of such a review the Council should urgently re-issue their guidance on the disposal of teabags, directing them to the landfill category.’

Stuart Collins’s Reply

‘Thank you for your enquiry into the tea bags being placed in the food waste bin, having looked into it this what  the recycling industry say.

Tea bags are known to contain plastic, this can be in two forms either the tea bag being made of plastic or the paper bag using a type pf plastic (polypropylene) to seal the bag.  With both types of tea bags these can still be processed by the anaerobic digestor where our food waste is sent.  The anaerobic digestor produces biogas and digestate, it is the digestate that is used as fertiliser.  All studies suggest that although there are micro plastics in the digestate, this is at a safe level.  As the processor are able to accept teabags we advise people to recycle them in their food waste.

If you wish to compost the tea bags (which is even better than recycling them) we advise you empty the tea leaves into the compost bin and dispose of the empty bag in the general waste.  Alternatively there are ways to eliminate plastic bags from tea, the following producers use no plastic in their tea bags; Abel and Cole, Clipper, Co-op own brand 99, Pukka Herbs, Teapigs, Twinings pyramid range and Waitrose Duchy range.  Also loose leaf tea is another option…’

Ian Hunter’s Response

Thanking Collins for his reply Ian suggests that he thinks Collins has ‘rather missed the serious point of my enquiry.   NO PLASTIC, HOWEVER SMALL should be allowed to enter the food chain even at ‘safe level’ as your experts say.

Irrespective of the technical explanation given, for which information I appreciate,  the fact remains that tea bags and similar material can be placed in the ‘landfill’ bin, or bag in my case, which takes the problem completely out of society’s concern.

Why can you not do this by a simple expedient of posting a notice in residents’ letter boxes during a normal refuse collection as well as in the Croydon magazine.’

The email tread was copied by Ian to several Conservative Councillors, Chris Philp (Ian’s MP), and the Green Party. He has received no comments from any of them.

On the nomination of Croydon for a recycling award (reported in my Croydon Update posting of 27 June)  Ian comments: ‘if an award for increasing the amount of recycling is concerned only with the percentage recycled but not the way refuse is safely categorised  it seems very wrong to encourage residents to put tea bags in food waste at all.’

Some Questions

Ian has now raised some questions with me as a result of Stuart Collins’ reply.

(1)    Did he consult the three other members of the SLWP, and if he did, what are their views?

(2)    Can Croydon go it alone to advise residents to put their tea bags into their  landfill containers if it  responds to public pressure on this matter, or not?

Heriot Watt University Study

Ian draws attention to a Heriot Watt University Study on the effects of contaminate microplastics in the digestate left over after the anerobic digestion (AD) process.   Their initial research found the amounts discovered gave no cause for concern yet. (Ian’s underlining).

‘The argument runs that if microplastics can end up in plankton and fish there is no reason why the food we grow and eat will not also end up being contaminated.   The two simple ways to avoid this are (a.) no bags at all or (b.) 100% compostable bags.’

Collins referred to ‘studies suggesting that the microplastics in the digestate are at a safe level’. Ian points out that (H)owever the Heriot Watt initial studies included the word ‘yet’  which he did not. In view of the years it took before the real effects of smoking became apparent I don’t think any reliance should be put on the current absence of harm in digesting even microscopic elements of plastic.’

Ian remains convinced that ‘the Council should ask all residents to put their tea bags in  their landfill containers, leaving any general policy on microplastics to take care of itself in due course.’

Plastic Free Teabags

Abel and Cole


Co-op own brand 99

Pukka Herbs


Twinings pyramid range

Waitrose Duchy range


About seancreighton1947

Since moving to Norbury in July 2011 I have been active on local economy, housing and environment issues with Croydon TUC and Croydon Assembly. I am a member of the Love Norbury Residents Associations Planning & Transport Committees, and Chair of Nobury Community Land Trust. I write for Croydon Citizen at I co-ordinate the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History Networks and edit the North East Popular Politics database. History Project.. I give history talks and lead history walks. I retired in 2012 having worked in the community/voluntary sector and on heritage projects. My history interests include labour movement, mutuality, Black British, slavery & abolition, Edwardian roller skating and the social and political use of music and song. I have a particular interest in the histories of Battersea and Wandsworth, Croydon and Lambeth. I have a publishing imprint History & Social Action Publications.
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