tea bagMany years ago, I designed a new tea bag delivery system.  It was aesthetically beautiful, yet simple.  My goal was to provide a product that would enable whole-leaf tea drinkers to bring their tea from home to work or out for dinner – at the time, it was almost impossible to get high-quality whole-leaf tea at any restaurants.  I finally found a bag that worked perfectly, but it was manufactured in Japan.  Despite repeated attempts, I was unable to get information about the material the tea bag was made of.  Because I suspected it contained plastic, I ended up abandoning the project.  Years later, I learned of a “biodegradable” tea bag that was being made for the industry to use with prepackaged tea.  Truth was, at that point, I had founded T Ching and was otherwise engaged.

 Moving from New Jersey to Oregon seven years ago, I’ve embraced the lifestyle of the Pacific Northwest.  I’m one of a growing number of backyard composters and proud to be one.  The problem I’m currently having, however, is that I’ve got dozens of corn-based tea bags sitting in my composter and they’re NOT degrading.  How can that be, you ask?  Grab a cup of tea and listen to this sorry tale of assumptions, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations.

If you haven’t yet noticed, there has been a shift from the first generation of pyramid tea bags – which were beautiful and innovative, but made of nylon – to the reportedly 100% biodegradable corn-based bags.  These bags are derived from corn starch, but are actually PLA (polylactic acid).  You might be familiar with this term as it’s what muscles produce after strenuous exercise.  Here’s where the story heats up.  The term “biodegradable” is legally defined by the FTC – the Federal Trade Commission.  In 1998, they had a pretty vague definition of what it meant to be biodegradable.  Essentially, anything meets the legal definition of biodegradable if it is “degradeable,” which means it can be composted.  As we become more sophisticated in our understanding of composting, we’ve learned that different materials degrade at different rates under different conditions that involve heat, moisture, PH level, and types and numbers of organisms present.  What this really means is that what can be considered compostable is different, depending upon whether you are talking about backyard composting, community composting, or industrial composting. 

I was fortunate to speak with David Cornell, the Technical Director of APR (Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers), who was a wealth of information about PLA.  He explained its early roots in dissolvable surgical sutures and how it evolved through different manufacturers in the early 1990‘s from Dow Chemical and Cargil to Natureworks and Soilon.

So how does this apply to the simple “biodegradable” tea bag, you might be wondering?  If you’re a backyard composter, you may already know that the unfortunate reality is that it’s NOT compostable.  From my vantage point, the simple answer seems to be that the manufacturer of these tea bags has misrepresented their product to the tea industry.  From my personal experience, when I learned of the biodegradable bags at the World Tea Expo years ago, I didn’t question for a moment that the bags were biodegradable.  I assumed the manufacturer was providing accurate information.  Even today, this same assumption has been made, even by the big boys in the tea industry.  I’ve had an opportunity to speak with a few of them first hand and they have confirmed my suspicions.

Given my relationship with Charles Cain, one of our most respected guest contributors here at T Ching, it was easy to get the details from him about Adagio’s tea bags.  As always, Charles was honest and straight forward.  Apparently, Adagio made the switch to the corn starch tea bags in an effort to become a more conscientious corporate citizen.  When they later learned that these same bags were not backyard compostable, they made the moral decision to continue to use the product, but remove the term “biodegradable” from their prominent advertising.  As Charles concluded, “These claims were misleading to the customer.”  So Adagio took the high road and continues to use the more expensive corn bag, although they do not claim that the bag is biodegradable.

The next industry leader I spoke with was Steve Smith.  You might remember him as the creator of Stash and then Tazo tea, who now has a small batch boutique tea company in his home state of Portland, Oregon called Smith Tea.  Steve was also very honest when he revealed that he too believed his supplier, Soilon.  In fact, he wasn’t yet prepared to believe me when I told him that his bags were not backyard compostable.  I encouraged him to contact his manufacturer and read the small print in their advertisements.  He chose instead to begin his own experiment of composting right here in Oregon.  Needless to say, I’ll check back with him in a few months, but my money is on the research by APR.  Steve did bring up another issue that I hadn’t even considered.  He spoke about “ideal conditions.”  We’d all like to think that moving to a corn-based product is optimal, but let’s not forget that when we’re talking corn, we’re often talking GMO’s.  Oops.  When I think of biodegradable, I think of “healthy for the environment and the planet.”  I feel the same way about the term “organic.”  Unfortunately, these corn bags are partially made with GMO corn.  Are you aware that we’re the only developed country that allows genetically modified corn to be used in our food supply?  That should be a clue that perhaps this might not be a healthy product to consume.  If push comes to shove, however, I would rather steep my tea in a GMO corn starch product than in a nylon one.  I believe it’s better for the environment and our bodies.

The last tea industry spokesperson I spoke with was Cindy Bigelow.  She is very interested in being part of the “green” initiative.  However, she, too, was unaware of this issue, which was reflective of the advertising on their Novus Tea site.  They proudly spoke of their bags being “100% biodegradable.”  Within a week of my discussion with Cindy, this was removed from their site as they consider how they want to inform the public about these commercially biodegradable tea bags.  Cindy told me that the company actually composts one ton of waste each month and will be starting a campaign to educate the pubic about the benefits of composting.  She also said, “I’m proud that we’re using Soilon, which I believe is a superior product to nylon.”  It is interesting to note that since I began researching this post a month ago, the Japanese manufacturer of Soilon tea bags has removed their “100% biodegradable” claims from their website.

There is no question that these bags are better for the environment than the nylon tea bags, but they still have a way to go.  The good news is that the FTC will be redefining the term “biodegradable” this calendar year and will most likely speak to this distinction.  Once manufacturing companies, like Soilon/Tearoad, are no longer able to legally define their products as biodegradable, it will eliminate a lot of the confusion around this issue within the tea industry.  I must admit to being a bit surprised that even major tea companies believed their manufacturers.  In this litigious age, I would have thought there would be a legal team that verified all product claims, but if Bigelow doesn’t do it, then I guess it just isn’t done.  I want to report that I genuinely believed each person that I spoke to about this issue.  I do not believe they were aware of this issue and chose to pretend otherwise.  They, too, were misled and have taken steps to correct their information.  I am proud to be a part of an industry in which the leaders step up and say “I didn’t know.”  Not one person said they were within their legal rights to state their bag was biodegradable.

The next question is – what would be a better term?  One could consider “biorenewable,” which essentially means “made from plants.”  Or one could state a bag is commercially biodegradable, which would alert the backyard composters not to put it into their composter.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions about what word you’d like to see written on our infamous corn starch tea bag boxes.