Updated: Sep 7
While some teas come packed inside metallic cans, many still come packed in plastic or aluminium pouches covered by a layer of a material similar to plastic. And even though the tea packaging manufacturing industry is shifting to more environmentally friendly solutions, there is still a lot of work to do in this area of the tea industry.
As a consumer, you might have asked yourself many times, how can you recycle tea packaging? There should be a recycling scheme available in each country yet some of them might be better than others dealing with the residual matter, we as humans, generate via our consumption habits. I don't really have all the answers, but I would like to share some tips with you that will surely be useful when dealing with tea packaging waste. What are the materials typically used in tea packaging?
Metallic tea caddies: they come in many shapes & forms along with a wide range of colours. In fact, some consumers will only buy teas if they come presented inside an attractive tea caddy. Companies within the tea industry, have found a way to attract many consumers via their eye-catching tea caddies design. The quality of the tea contained in those gorgeous tea caddies becomes irrelevant. Customers are buying guided by their desire to own those beautiful tins that can be used to store something else, such as teas from other vendors, herbs, spices or tisanes. Cardboard tea caddies: they are mostly cylindrical & an alternative version of some of the metallic tea caddies models. They usually contain teabags & either the teabags are placed inside the caddie without any other wrapping material, or they come encased inside a plastic bag. As far as I have seen, loose tea is never packed using these cardboard tea caddies. Or if they are, they come inside a see-through plastic bag. Cardboard boxes: used to pack teabags encased inside their own envelopes most of the time, the boxes come in a number of design & colours. Typically, there is a box of a given size filled in with teabags or a large box containing a number of smaller tea boxes inside. We can also find smaller boxes shaped in a number of forms that hold a teabag inside. The designs vary depending on the brand & the season since there are always dedicated designs available for special occasions such as Christmas or St Valentine's Day. Plastic or aluminium pouches: these are quite common nowadays & are widely used because they allow the tea leaves to be vacuum-packed. In this way, the tea leaves are preserved for longer until the pouches are open. They also hold the leaves tightly which helps to preserve them whole plus they occupy less space. Not all the leaves can be tightly vacuum-packed though, especially large, whole leaves which need a bit of room to avoid them being crushed. This is why a number of different models of these pouches exist. Some are covered by a paper wrapper or a cardboard sleeve. Japanese teas often times have a washi wrapper which is beautiful & can be reused to wrap other things. The ones made out of clear plastic & still in use by a number of companies, contribute to the degradation of the leaves since the light hits the leaves. Aluminium tea bags: narrow single-use aluminium small pouches with tea leaves inside. They come wrapped in a translucent envelope which is adapted to their shape. A new take on the traditional teabags which emulates an infusor. They fare close in convenience than the traditional teabags. Since they have been created for single-use they seem to be like a new way of generating unnecessary waste.
Paper pouches: in many traditional tea stores we can find pouches made of paper that are used to pack teas purchased in bulk. They are manufactured using three or four layers of different types of paper. Usually, they are not covered in plastic inside so the air can penetrate through the paper layers. Some are made of kraft paper, the pouches which are similar to the aluminium/plastic pouches, have an inner layer of a plastic material inside. Glass containers: the teas packed this way usually comes in small jars or test tubes & are mainly used by small tea vendors. While the jars or tubes look great & are reusable, do a poor job preserving the tea leaves unless they are fully opaque.
There are some glass containers nowadays sold as infinity jars which are black & according to the manufacturer, don't allow the light to go through. Natural materials: some brands use bamboo or biodegradable materials for their tea packaging. They can be found in multiple shapes like cylindrical tea caddies or cardboard boxes. They are similar to what has been in use for years for tea packaging however they seem to be better for the environment.
The materials used come from a number of natural sources like potato, corn or even SCOBY (used to make kombucha.) But are they better for packaging the teas that are contained in them? Sometimes, many of the materials already mentioned are used to produce tea packaging. Such as a kraft pouch with a clear window or a cardboard box filled in with metallic tea caddies. The possible combinations are endless! I am sure if I dig a bit deeper in the Asian tea industry I could find a lot more options. However, I decided to focus on the European market since this is where my business is located. Which of these materials is the best for tea packaging? In my eyes, not all the materials in use are suitable for optimal tea packaging. These are the options I find the most suitable ones, as a tea vendor & as a consumer: Metallic tea caddies: as long as they are made with a type of food-grade metal they are good. The advantages of using this type of container are numerous: they are eye-catchy, oftentimes are stackable, if properly sealed help to preserve the tea leaves for longer & they are endlessly reusable. The main issue is that nowadays many of them are made using very cheap materials that get oxidated which is a threat to our health. This is why is important to source them from reliable manufacturers.
Plastic, kraft or aluminium pouches: that don't have a clear window & allow to pack the tea leaves safely. Ideally, they can be used to vacuum pack the leaves & occupy less space. Plus they can be used to store the tea leaves all the way at home without the need to buy a second container. The disadvantage of using this method is that many of the pouches aren't biodegradable yet since the manufacturing industry hasn't caught up with sustainability. In that regards, there are a number of things that could definitely be improved. Natural materials: I personally love them, I think they fit well with tea & this is why I am looking into the available options. There are multiple ones that would be suitable for tea packaging without compromising the quality of the leaves. The disadvantage of using these types of materials are price point & availability. They are way more expensive than the materials usually used in the tea industry, mainly because there are fewer manufacturers who are offering these options. This has an impact on the final price of the teas. Plus some teas cannot be bought in bulk directly from the source, they come pre-packaged & unfortunately don't offer any eco-friendly options. So the number of teas that can be offered when packing the teas yourself are more limited. If you really want to keep offering the same product that is. Which ones are more environmentally friendly? From an environmentally point of view, these are the most eco-friendly tea packaging options: Metallic tea caddies: can be used all over again. Once we no longer want them, they can be recycled endlessly. Once they have been produced & sold, the end customer can reuse them forever. If they don't come inside any other wrapping material they generate no waste. If they become oxidated, however, they no longer can be used safely & should be disposed of.
Natural materials: they can be reused (like bamboo) they degrade over time like for example potato or corn starch wrappers or they can potentially be fully composted. Glass jars: they can be reused to store a number of things at home such as spices, buttons, clips. If they break, however, they might not be suitable for recycling since not all types of glass are. What can I do to recycle tea packaging effectively? This is the tricky part since all of us live in different countries, continents or regions. Each country has its own recycling scheme in place, some are better than others. But even though some countries might have a recycling scheme in place it doesn't mean they follow it to the letter. That is why is difficult to give advice on recycling since it mainly depends on how recycling is done in the area you live in. I will provide general advice which might be helpful for you yet take it only as a guideline more than anything else.
I currently live in Sweden where according to statistics, only 1% of trash is sent to landfills. They have set up a rather complex recycling system where every single item is separated by its inhabitants. They recycle the majority of the trash they produce or they burn what cannot be recycled to convert it into energy. They even import trash from other countries such as the Uk, Italy, Norway or Ireland. This is also a source of income for the country since they get paid for taking the trash, they make money from recycling it & from converting it into energy they can also sell. By converting trash into energy they have drastically reduced their carbon dioxide emissions by 34% since 1990. The goal is to reduce greenhouse emissions within the country by 74% in 2020. In some new development areas, the burnable trash produced by the residents themselves is converted into energy directly on-site, without the need of transporting the trash to any third party recycling plant. How can each of the wrapping options be recycled? Metallic tea caddies: pay attention to the material buy only those that are food-grade & don't look super cheap. Reuse them as much as you can. The smell from the tins can be easily removed by placing some kitchen towel inside for a number of days until it is gone. Up to 80% of all the metal ever produced is still in use up to this day. If you no longer want to use a metallic tea caddy donate it or place it into the right recycling category for metallic waste. In this way, it can be repurposed & made usable again. Cardboard tea caddies/boxes & paper: check whether the materials are fully recyclable or compostable at the time of buying. The tea caddies made out of cardboard can surely be reused to store other items like pencils. The boxes are usually super thin so they can get damaged easily & therefore are not so easy to reuse. Once the time has come to get rid of the cardboard wrappers, ensure you place them in the right recycling category. Up to 85% of cardboard & paper gets recycled within the EU. Plastic/aluminium covered pouches: they can be recycled after having been used. My advice is always to keep the tea in the original pouch tightly closed & properly stored. Where to place this type of pouches can be confusing since some of them contain aluminium. However, it is a special type of material that gets disposed of together with the plastic waste. Any packaging material that contains plastic goes to the plastic pile. This is where the potato chips & snacks wrappers are supposed to go as well. I was really confused at first so I read the Swedish recycling manual (which is a very thick book) & I found out where things should go. Plastic is a material that can be recycled but for that to happen we as consumers we have to contribute. The amount of plastic that is recycled within the EU has risen up to 74% more than in the past. Nowadays, more plastic gets recycled than landfilled which is a good sign.
Glass containers: it is not easy to find out if the glass can be recycled for some of the generic glass jars or tubes used to pack tea so reuse them as much as you can. Once you no longer want them, donate them or dispose of them within your recycling station or area. 73% of the glass used in Europe gets recycled. The same as with other materials, we have to play our part as consumers in order to raise the percentage of the materials that get recycled. Natural materials: the bamboo tea caddies can be reused to store many other things inside. Once we not longer want them they can be disposed of in the compost pile. I couldn't find an article about recycling a bamboo tea caddy yet I run into one for a bamboo toothbrush. Since it is the same material some of the advice contained in that article might be useful.
For any other material that is bio-degradable, check the instructions provided by the manufacturer. Some can go into the compost pile others may dissolve with water.
If there are a number of materials present, I usually place the item in the pile corresponding to the larger amount of material the packaging is made of. Example, if the majority of the wrapper is plastic, I place it in the plastic pile. If that is not the place, it will be separated & possibly burnt afterwards. For me, the ideal solution to tea packaging is the one that keeps the tea leaves fresh so the product doesn't deteriorate, looks good, can be reused & recycled easily. Plus avoiding teabags by buying loose leaf which already helps to decrease the amount of the potential waste to be generated. While I find a more sustainable way to present high-quality Japanese teas to you, I recycle as much as I can. I reuse wrapping materials to make your shipments so they aren't used just once. This is the least I can do as a small business owner. What do you think? What's your experience recycling tea packaging? Share your comments below! PLEASE READ! The aim of this blog is to help you to improve your Japanese tea knowledge one article at a time. If you enjoyed this post don't forget to hit like (the little heart bottom right) & consider to subscribe to the blog so you don't miss any of the future posts. You can also find me on Instagram (daily Japanese tea-based pairings plus occasional giveaways) & Tik Tok (Japanese tea-based drinks.) The Spanish version of this article should be released at some point on the Spanish blog. And if you haven't done so, subscribe to the newsletter and get 10% OFF from your first order. Shipping within the EU currently.
Keep sipping on great organic whole leaf Japanese teas! Until next Monday!