Happy Solstice! Have a cup of tea! …but will it compost?

Happy Solstice! It’s been a very wet winter so far here in Portland, and it has only just begun. At least I have longer (and warmer) days to look forward to.

The solstices are very underrated and under celebrated holidays in my opinion. Do you have any solstice traditions? I’ll be sipping a warm, cozy cup of tea by the fire to celebrate the shortest day this year.

And speaking of tea….while, I love tea, I don’t love the plastic and foil individually wrapped packaging they often come it. I *should* buy only loose leaf tea, and use reusable tea strainers, but it’s less convenient, and it somewhat limits your options if you eschew pre-bagged tea. Most of the grocery stores where I shop have a very limited selection of loose leaf teas (if any).

I was perusing the Trader Joe’s website the other day and ended up on their Sustainability page. While I enjoy the fun aesthetic of Trader Joe’s as much as next person, I don’t like how much packaging they use! I’ve heard that they are adjusting their practices to reduce packaging, but so far, I haven’t noticed any real difference in their stores. It seems like the same old obnoxious unnecessary packaging to me.

According to their website, however, in 2020 they “improved” packaging of over 150 products and “removed over 2 million pounds of plastic packaging from their products.” I have no idea how much 2 million pounds is. It sounds like a lot, but if they use 200 billion pounds of plastic packaging annually, then 2 million pounds less is not very impressive.

But more importantly….

…their tea packets (the clear film that the individual tea bags come wrapped in) are now compostable! Home compostable, no less.

What’s odd is that this fact is listed NOWHERE on the box of tea. The clear wrapper looks like plastic….feels like plastic….I’d assume it’s plastic unless clearly stated elsewhere. I thought perhaps it’s only certain varieties that are being updated, but Nate has Earl Grey (the exact same tea shown in the photo above) and nowhere on the box does it say anything about being compostable.

I asked Nate to put a tea wrapper in his balcony compost bin to test whether they are truly home compostable…..time will tell.

P.S. The next question I have is whether or not there is plastic in the tea bags themselves. Plastic (specifically polypropylene) has been added to tea bags to help them retain their structure in boiling water. This means that many tea bags are not compostable. (See a BBC clip here on the subject.) Since this fact about tea bags has been revealed, in response to consumer demand, many brands are moving away from plastic (including Numi, Republic of Tea, PG Tips, and Lipton even!), but Trader Joe’s is not included in lists of either tea bags that are plastic free or tea bags that contain plastic, so I’m not sure. I’d be surprised if they made the effort to switch to compostable tea packages, but still kept the plastic in the tea bags themselves. But I guess I’m not entirely sure yet that they’ve switched to compostable tea packages.

P.P.S. Another fact I learned from the Trader Joe’s website: “The term biodegradable refers to a material’s ability to eventually degrade and is often used as a generic term.  The term compostable refers to a material’s ability to degrade within a short amount of time (under six months) in a composting operation (residential or industrial). Not all biodegradable material is compostable.” Very sneaky….I see you green washing. Technically plastic is biodegradable if you wait…. millions of years.

A deeper dive found that the Federal Trade Commission is aware of this issue and has published “Green Guides” which advise advertisers and manufacturers on the use of, among other things, the terms “compostable” and “degradable.” If an item is labeled compostable, it must be able to break down into organic matter on a time scale similar to other things found in a compost pile. They were slightly less specific about the term degradable, but basically the term should be appropriately qualified (e.g. biodegradable in an industrial composting facility) so as not to mislead the consumer.

While these Green Guides are not technically legally binding, if a manufacturer or advertiser were to use the terms compostable or degradable in a manner inconsistent with the Green Guides, the FTC could (I think) investigate and bring legal action against said manufacturer/advertiser….I think….legalese is very confusing. Hooray for consumer protection! (I think?)

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