Did you know that most teabags are not biodegradable?
"Why's that? Tealeaves and paper are fine for my compost!"
True, those things are, but the major tea companies add plastic to their teabags. When you pour hot water on your teabag you're also steeping polypropylene (plastic) in your cuppa; and it isn't biodegradable. If you grow organic then bear in mind that the teabags will be adding plastic into your compost.
Most tea companies try to hide this unsavoury fact: they don't want you to know about it, and when you do raise your concerns they tell you "it's an industry-wide practice". Oh, so that's alright then - they're saying that if most companies do something you don't agree with, you shouldn't be concerned! Poppycock. The reason more people haven’t complained is because tea companies keep it quiet, and let people think tea bags are just paper. You can learn more about the issue here and here (Which?); a roundup on a recycling blog was done in 2011.
We'll break down the companies based on their use (or not) of plastic. If we know the Ethical Consumer score (out of 20) we'll include it in square brackets after the name.
Companies that don't use plastic in their teabags
- Yogi Teas  (but they don't do a normal black tea)
- Teapigs  (they use corn starch teabags, so 100% biodegradable; their low score is because they are owned by low-scoring companies - more here)
- Twinings [0-1] - we moved them into this category after publishing this post, because they replied to us on 3rd March 2014 to say: "All of our Twinings teabags are fully compostable and do not contain any plastic. Our tea bag paper is produced from the abacá plant which belongs to the banana family, Musaceae. This is a native to The Philippines but now grown widely throughout Central and South America as well. It is chosen due to its long, strong fibres. The tea bag material used in Twinings tetramesh range (Whole Leaf Silky Pyramids) is also fully biodegradable/compostable. The material used is derived from maize starch. The starch is treated by an enzyme to create the compound ‘ploy-lactic acid which has a ‘plastic’ character which can by spun into filaments. It is completely biodegradable by microorganisms in soil. It decomposes into carbon dioxide and water. In compost, it will degrade within weeks. In soil or water it will degrade over 3-4 years. It contains no hazardous substances such as endocrine disruptors. And there is no generation of hazardous gases such as dioxin with it is burnt." So we were surprised by this, but assuming it is true, have moved them up to this 'no plastic' category.
- Jacksons of Piccadilly  - they told us "I can confirm that our teabags do not contain any plastics. Our Single Origin Speciality Fairtrade Teas, Sencha Green Fairtrade Teas and Pure Chinese White Silvertip Tea (20 packs) contain 100% recyclable single envelopes sourced entirely from sustainable forests. The teabags are stitched, rather than stapled, so are also fully biodegradable". However, Ethical Consumer give them a score of 0 as a company, which is the worst score!
- Pukka 
- CafeDirect / Teadirect 
- Traidcraft [14.5]
- Ridgways [12.5]
- Heath & Heather [11.5-12.5]
- Typhoo [11.5-12]
- Clipper [10-12]
- Fresh Brew [11.5]
- Yorkshire Tea  They told us: "We're working with our supplier of teabag paper to develop a paper that is 100% plant-based, but right now our tea bags do contain polypropylene as part of the fibres. ... You're quite right that the synthetic fibres aren't biodegradable like the rest of a tea bag - they do degrade, but very slowly."
- Tetley [6.5] (worth reading the links from here)
- PG Tips [3.5]
- Lyons [3.5]
In this post we're just considering the issue of unnecessarily adding plastic to our teabags. We realise it is only one ethical issue related to tea. For a broader view consider a subscription to the wonderful Ethical Consumer. They consider many other issues e.g. the organic and fairtrade angles, unbleached cotton, big/small company issues and so on.
Feel free to tell the tea companies what you think (we have emailed them all - unless we hear back from them you can assume the information we have posted is correct). Also consider switching to loose-leaf tea, which has a lot less packaging and gets around all concerns about what teabags are made of!
Update, July 2014
This weekend we emptied out compost from one of the bins. Good stuff - apart from the teabags, which as you can see from the photo below, have not broken down at all over a number of years. it shows what a terrible idea it is to add unnecessary plastic to paper products.