One Small Step: switch to loose leaf tea

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For challenge 3 in One Small Step, I thought I’d zoom in on seeking more sustainable options for our daily cup of tea.

I’m a tea drinker, smitten with strong black tea with milk and honey each morning. I’m also a fan of herbal chai on the weekends, homegrown tulsi when I’m stressed, and a relaxing herbal blend before bed.

And until this month (and the inception of this blog series), 99% of the times that I reached for purchased tea, I reached for a packaged tea bag.

Truly, there was very little I questioned about the process. I’d rifle through the boxes, choose my envelope, rip it open, and brew. I would steep my tea, then toss the spent tea bag into the compost pail, the wrapper into recycling, and sip my cup.

Until I discovered that actually, it wasn’t quite that simple.

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Because while there are exceptions, most bagged tea (even organic tea) has some sustainability issues. It turns out that a majority of tea bags are made of a paper-plastic blend. The plastic helps the tea bag hold its shape in your cup, and not leak leaves into your brew. Tea bags that are fused closed (versus stapled shut) use plastic to create a tight seal.

That means that when you drink tea brewed with this common, standard type of tea bag, you’re drinking micro- and nano-plastics with every sip. Plastic! (Some tea bags, like those made completely of thin, woven plastic, are logically even worse.)

That means that many of the tea bags that I tossed in to the compost heap actually deposited a fine layer of plastic in my garden soil. Ew.

To make matters worse nearly all of the paper envelopes that tea bags come individually wrapped in are not recyclable either. Take a close look when you rip them open, and you’ll see that most of them are comprised of a non-recyclable frankenpaper, made of paper and plastic, inseparably fused. There’s even an organic brand that I love that I was disheartened to discover shipped their bags in non-recyclable, non-compostable mylar.

Sigh.

So what’s a tea lover to do?

Don’t despair. I’ve outlined some simple, accessible solutions below. As a bonus, since making this change, I’m enjoying my tea ritual more than ever before.

Sustainable Tea Solutions

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Leaf over bag

Choose loose leaf tea, whenever possible. Purchase from your natural food store bulk bins if possible, decanting tea into your own refillable jar. You (like me) may be surprised to discover that your tea expenses are reduced by more than half when making this simple shift! (It turns out–like with so many products–what we’re paying for is mostly the packaging.) Give bulk teas a sniff before buying, to make sure it isn’t stale before you bring it home. Choose a different variety if it is. You can also buy tins of loose leaf tea, though they tend to be more expensive per ounce. If you have the means, switch to organic loose leaf tea for even greater sustainability.

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Plastic-free brewing solutions

Brew your loose leaf tea using a simple, basket-style tea infuser. I find this type to be ideal, as it lets the tea leaves move freely for a well-brewed, flavorful cup. And it isn’t fiddly to assemble like some tea infusers, and doesn’t won’t leaves into your mug. Check at your natural foods coop or tea shop to see if you can find something similar locally. If you want to go even more low-consumption, brew in a pre-warmed mason jar, then decant into your cup by pouring through a stainless sprouting lid. or a small metal strainer the right size for your cup. I picked mine up at a thrift store for 35 cents, and kept it out of the landfill to boot. Win-win! (Wrap your hot mason jar in a towel before pouring, to prevent burns.) (afflinks)

Choose bagged teas wisely

If you do choose to continue to buy bagged tea, choose a plastic-free option. Newman’s Organic Black Tea comes wrapped in compostable/recyclable paper only (not a fused paper/plastic mix), and to my knowledge their tea bags are plastic-free. (The box does come plastic-wrapped, however.) Other brands have clean tea bags too (like Pukka), but many lack the plastic-free individual wrappings.

Here’s a list of plastic-free tea bag brands to get you started.

For pod users

And if you use Kruig tea pods, purchase a stainless steel, refillable pod. You’ll save a ton of money, and reduce your trash generation by leagues. (afflink)

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Grow (or forage) your own!

I you’re an herbal tea fan, homegrown tea is one of the most rewarding crops to grow. And it’s as zero-waste as they come: no carbon footprint for packaging, transportation, fertilizer, and more.

Need inspiration? I forage dandelion, linden, burdock, nettle, wild peppermint, mountain mint, mullein, bee balm, and chicory (among other wonderful weeds), and grow calendula, chamomile, anise hyssop, echinacea, sage, thyme, rose, and more for our tea pantry. I store the dried tea in mason jars as individual herbs, and in blends I dream up for tummy aches, bedtime, anxiety, etc.

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All this said, there is still a lot of tea in my house and at work that I purchased in individual packets right now. A lot. My plan to drink and savor what I’ve already purchased (shame-free), and then, when it’s time to restock, do better.

That’s what this challenge is all about, after all. Starting where we are, and making better choices from here.

 

Are you a tea drinker? Have you made the switch to loose leave over tea bags? What other tips would you add to the list above?

 

You can find the entire One Small Step series here, or click through below for individual posts:

One Small Step: a year of small actions with huge impact

Swap Plastic Bottles of Soap for Bars (plus a DIY liquid recipe)

Buy Less Stuff

6 thoughts on “One Small Step: switch to loose leaf tea

  1. Anna says:

    I make my loose tea in a stainless steel isolated french press (that has been never use for coffee of course!) Keep it warm and easy to strain 🙂

    • Rachel Wolf says:

      What a brilliant idea! Our only press pot is very coffee-flavored, but I love this idea for loose leaf tea. Thanks for sharing, Anna!

  2. sustainablemum says:

    I switched to loose herbs for tea some time ago as I was concerned about the plastic in tea bags, I now buy one or two boxes a year for the times we go wild camping. My husband bought me a teapot for my birthday about five years ago which has a basket style infuser in the middle. I love that you can make your own blends and when we were all ill recently we made some nourishing blends to assist with our recovery. I grow and forage for leaves in the warm months but haven’t had a go at drying them for use in the colder months which is something I really should do!

  3. Kathleen says:

    Thanks so much for all this great info! This is something I have wanted to make more effort towards for a while and I’m feeling inspired. I recently discovered Pukka tea and really love their blends so I’m happy to know that if I do want some tea bags, this is a good choice. But I’m going to try to source more loose leaf tea that I can purchase in my own containers too.

  4. Starla says:

    This is a great article, thank you. I am happy to say that Republic of Tea has compostable, plastic-free tea bags that come in either tins or resealable bags. I love their huge selection of teas, but because of pricing and pesticide concerns usually stick to buying organic black and organic rooibos in bulk bags, which brings the cost per tea bag down considerably.

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