Tailor Made Tea Bags

I'm writing this on an eerily warm day in February. The trees outside my Baltimore apartment are blooming early. Winter is not my favorite season- but it plays an important part in the life cycles of our local flora and fauna. Trees blooming now will be much worse off come spring. There are many reasons to care about climate change- if you drink tea, you probably care about your water quality and plant life. If you breathe air, you should care. 

My contribution to climate change is manifold. As a seamstress working in the textile industry I see and handle industrial waste daily. I fill trash bags with chemically treated and synthetic fabrics that will take hundreds of years to break down and leach toxins into the earth & water long after. As an American seamstress, I've been fortunate to be protected by regulations previously established by the EPA (if not always properly enforced). With Scott Pruitt's recent confirmation, I fear more than ever the pealing away of these protections and the severe impact this will have on our health and environment. 

On the day of Pruitt's confirmation, I went out with a trash bag lined cart, some gloves, good boots, knee pads, and a sign. It was another unseasonably nice February? day. I spent most of it picking trash out of the grasses and gutters, all the while painfully aware that this small gesture wouldn't come close to offsetting the damage already done by just my industry alone. Passersby complimented me on my consideration, but still passed by all the same. And I don't blame them.

It takes 5 minutes to walk through the park on my way to work each day. Stopping to pick up trash along the way, that same walk takes 3 hours. Working Americans don't have time to stop. Countless cigarette butts, bottles, cans, caps, and even tea bags pointed to this inevitable conclusion: we don't have time to clean up the messes we make. I don't have time to stop every time I see trash on my walks, I can't afford to be late to work, and I can't afford to leave my job. It's not a lazy attitude. It's an economic reality. And economic demands will always trump environmental concerns in our capitalist country (especially under Trump). 

This is how precious my time is. During my work day I get two 15 minute breaks. I spend the first minute filling my mug with water (it takes long because the pipes at work are very old). I microwave the water for 2 minutes. Add a tea bag and let it steep (1 minute) and cool (1 minute). I have 10 minutes left now to sip my tea, rest my legs, and use the bathroom. I feel like I don't have a second to waste. You're probably feeling anxious just taking the time to read this blog. I'm not alone. 

found this one and six others in the park :/

found this one and six others in the park :/

I mean, this is exactly why we have teabags. People have been drinking tea for nearly 5,000 years, and it wasn't till about a hundred years ago that brewing it loose became too much of a hassle. The teabag didn't come to America until a couple ladies from Milwaukee patented the idea in 1901: A long pouch made of cotton with a fold-over top called a "Tea Holder". It took almost seven years for the idea to catch on, and when it did Merchant Thomas Sullivan took all the credit, though his design wasn't as well thought out. Where Lawson & Molaren's design was carefully plotted out, Sullivan seems to have discovered the teabag "by accident" (suuuuure you did). When he realized how much people liked the time saved by these single-serving silk sachets, he wasted no time capitalizing on the idea. His final design is what you find in most grocery stores today, cheap paper gauze filled with tea dust (the bitter factory leavings & stems ground up) then closed with a staple or glue. The design wasn't about quality, but quantity. Finally! a fast, cheap, and accessible way to drink tea.

Funny thing is- tea has always been cheaper loose. Lawson & Molaren knew it, and so did dear Mr. Sullivan. But consumers still insisted on the bags. Why? They save time! Now you can take your tea anywhere, you don't have to waste time brewing a whole pot, or cleaning up after. However, the speedy delivery of tea to our cups comes with a catch (besides the added cost, and loss of quality in the leaf). If there's anything we can take away from the origins of the teabag (besides recognizing the erasure of women innovators throughout history) it's that not all teabags are created equal. While conducting research for my own tea infuser design, I've come across some major design flaws in commercial teabags. Here are some things to watch out for:

1) Some teabags are not safe to use in hot water. Many teabags are made with synthetic materials (plastics) that give off toxins when heated (just like water bottles). Watch out especially for the silky looking triangle shaped sachets, some of these are made of nylon instead of plant-based fibers. 

2) There's more to paper bags than just paper. Although filter-paper teabags are made from plant fibers, they are sometimes blended with synthetic materials, or coated with plastic to make them more durable. Also pay attention to the closures - some companies heat seal their bags, and others use glue. 

3) Teabags are not exactly disposable. Though they may be out of sight and out of mind, many tea bags don't go away when you toss them. I drink tea almost everyday (that's 365 tea bags a year) - most of the teabags I've used are taking up room in a landfill now- the truly biodegradable ones will take a year to decompose, but the rest (which are the majority) will outlive my future grandchildren

Teabags have come a long way since the 1900's and many companies employ smarter designs - (designs hearkening back to the ladies of Milwaukee) with more room for whole leaves, food safe materials, biodegradable staple free bags, and other fun features (Like patented weaves accompanied by diagrams that look like they belong in a sex ed class). These options may be a bit more expensive than your typical teabags - and way more expensive than just switching to loose leaf - but they make better sense. My intention writing this is not to make you throw your teabags into the sea, but to encourage you to take a closer look at your daily consumption. Perhaps, like me, you don't have time to spend 10 minutes making tea. Even so, I hope you'll consider some alternatives - spending a couple dollars more on a sensible teabag - one that wont leach toxins into your cup or your environment, or spend a couple dollars less and go loose. There are tons of options out there, if you're online reading this, you have the tools to do your own research and find the right option for you.

Next time you go out to the cafe, bring your own cup, mug, or thermos instead of using a carryout cup. Another thing you can do is get the most out of each cup- you can steep the same teabag three or four times - just ask your barista for more hot water. 

Next time you go out to the cafe, bring your own cup, mug, or thermos instead of using a carryout cup. Another thing you can do is get the most out of each cup- you can steep the same teabag three or four times - just ask your barista for more hot water. 


This is part one of two posts on sustainability & teabags. Part two will go more into alternative options, and ways to make changes in the tea industry.