Boring objects. #2. The teabag.

Tea is regarded as a quintessentially British drink, conjuring up images of pottery crockery, polite conversations with the vicar and exceedingly good cakes.

However, this quaint mental picture is a little misleading.

For starters, tea originated in China, rather than Chelsea.

And it was a drink developed by accident.

Rumour has it that, in 2737 BC, a Chinese emperor was sitting under a tree while his manservant boiled up some drinking water in a cauldren.

As the pot boiled, some of the leaves from the tree landed in the water and infused the world’s first cuppa.

And quite possibly the largest.

Next, although Brits drink no less than 165 million cups of tea per day, the UK is fourth, not first, in the tea drinking premiere league.

Turkey, Ireland and Iran glug down considerably more.

But what possibly destroys the romance of British tea drinking culture the most is that only 4% of people take the time to add tea leaves to a teapot, cup and saucer at the ready.

No. 96% drop a teabag into a mug and squeeze it into submission.

It’s less messy and more convenient. But neither of these advantages are the original raison d’étre for the bag.

Teabags may seem like yet another example of our laziness and desire for instant gratification but they started out as…well…just bags tea merchants put tea into.

In 1908, a New York tea importer called Thomas Sullivan was doing a roaring trade. And he despatched tea to his customers in little silk bags.

Little did he know — or intend — that the recipients put the bags into boiling water to make their brew.

So, silk bags were the predecessors of today’s familiar bags.

In 1929, the first teabag machine was commissioned in Germany and a patent to heat seal them was filed a year later.

But it was just before the end of the second world war when teabags began being chosen over loose tea.

For many years, mass produced teabags were square in shape but, eventually, marketeers came up with some pretty dubious reasons why they would infuse better if they were circular, or even tetrahedron shaped.

Regardless of the shape, as the world began to love teabags, environmentalists spotted something that hadn’t really been an issue before.

You see, most people believe that everyday teabags are made from paper but this isn’t entirely true.

Flimsy paper sacks would dissolve in boiling water, so a tiny layer of polypropylene is added as a sealant.

An average bag is 20% plastic.

On top of this, the paper pulp is bleached so that it looks clean.

Following a significant outcry amongst the consumers who found this out, major manufacturers — and they involve huge corporations like Unilever — have promised to re-think the teabag.

Some niche brands have already introduced products made from corn starch or include quantities of harmless vegetable matter.

There are even re-fillable bags and devices that allow you to use loose tea more conveniently.

But most teabags remain members of the single use plastic club.

Given that tea is the most popular beverage in the world (even more popular than bottled water) maybe tea drinkers will rise up force change.

Until then, your cup of tea won’t sit well with COP27, when it comes.




I turn fluff into concrete. I help businesses communicate the most complicated things clearly and simply.

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Philip Morley

Philip Morley

I turn fluff into concrete. I help businesses communicate the most complicated things clearly and simply.

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