Some environmental activists get worked up about rainforests.
Others worry about the plight of polar bears or the perils of rising sea levels.
But for Diana Fox Carney, an economist, green guru and wife of the new Governor of the Bank of England, the issue that gets her really, really hot under the collar is the humble tea bag.
She describes the leaf-filled sachets as one of her ‘pet hates’ and says they are an environmental disaster.
‘Yes, they can be pretty, and convenient, but do we really need an extra 40 square cm of bleached and printed paper with every cup of tea?’ she writes on her blog, which reviews eco-friendly products.
Her husband was hopefully too preoccupied with the huge challenges of his new job at Threadneedle Street which he started yesterday to worry unduly about the contents of the Bank of England tea urn.
But for those millions who adore the convenience of the tea bag, it was enough to make us choke on our Tetley’s.
So does Mrs Fox Carney have a point? And are tea bags really doing untold harm to the planet?
THE SCALE OF THE TEA BAG MENACE
The tea bag was invented by accident more than 100 years ago by American merchant Thomas Sullivan, who decided to send samples of tea to customers in small silk pouches.
Some people were confused – assuming that the bags were supposed to be dunked in hot water just like traditional metal tea infusers.
When Sullivan heard what they were doing, he spotted a gap in the market. Thus, serendipitously, the tea bag was born.
At first, there were complaints that the mesh of the bags was too fine, so he replaced the silk with gauze. And as tea bags entered mass production, cheaper paper was used instead.
At first, the British were reluctant to abandon loose leaf tea, but by the 1950s, when families were embracing new labour-saving gadgets like never before, tea bags took off.
Bill Gorman, of the UK Tea Council, credits the tea bag with saving the tea industry. ‘We would not be drinking the volume of tea we do now without them,’ he says.
‘The UK is the second-largest tea market per person in the world. Ireland is first. Without tea bags, the industry would be on its knees.’
ARE THEY A WASTE OF PAPER?
Major brands such as PG Tips, Tetley and Typhoo no longer use wood pulp to make their paper, but a vegetable fibre derived from the abaca plant – a relative of the banana grown mostly in Indonesia and South America. However, we certainly use a lot of it.
According to the Tea Council, the British drink around 60 billion cups of tea every year. Around 96 per cent of those are made with tea bags.
That means more than 55 billion tea bags are dunked, squeezed and tossed away each year in the UK alone.
It adds up to a lot of paper, particularly when so many tea bags are no longer rectangular – the least wasteful design for a tea bag – but round or pyramid-shaped.
A PG Tips pyramid bag, for instance, is made from a rectangle of perforated filter paper approximately 70 square cm. A traditional square tea bag, on the other hand, uses around 50 square cm of paper.
So a tea lover who drinks five cups a day will get through 13 square metre of perforated paper each year.
A couple living with two teenage children could get through 50 square metre of tea bag paper each year.
It seems a lot, but not when put in perspective. According to a paper industry survey a few years ago, the typical Briton uses 80 to 90 rolls of loo paper each year.
Meanwhile, the 50 square metre of tea bag paper we use is the equivalent of only around two or three rolls of quality loo paper.
If you count all the paper, cardboard, packaging, papers and phone directories, the typical family uses the equivalent of six trees a year. The 50 sq m of thin bag paper pales in comparison.