Ilona Amos: There’s good news if plastic pollution is driving you to drink

Co-op is developing a fully biodegradable tea bag in a bid to tackle plastic pollution caused by the nation's favourite hot drink
Co-op is developing a fully biodegradable tea bag in a bid to tackle plastic pollution caused by the nation's favourite hot drink
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Nobody who watched the BBC’s mesmerising Blue Planet II could have failed to be shocked and angered by footage such as shots of an albatross unwittingly feeding plastic to her chick.

The documentary echoed disturbing photographs taken last summer at some of our most remote and environmentally important beaches during a survey by Greenpeace of plastic pollution around the Scottish coastline. Pictures taken in spots as far-flung from human habitation as the Shiant isles showed piles of bottles, lids, ropes, wet wipes and fishing gear littering beaches, and captured puffins and other native seabirds making nests out of man-made rubbish.

These images are truly heart-breaking, but they help drive home the impact of our modern throwaway culture on marine life and the planet. It is estimated that as much as 12 million tonnes of plastic waste is ending up in oceans around the world every year. And it doesn’t just disappear. It persists in the environment for hundreds of years, entangling and choking marine wildlife or gradually disintegrating into smaller and smaller pieces that get eaten by seabirds and fish mistaking them for food.

Thank goodness we’re beginning to wake up to what we’re doing. Ordinary people are taking action at home as well as demanding big firms and leaders make an effort to tackle the issue.

Action needs to be stepped up, but it’s heartening to see the war against plastic waste has been gathering momentum. A national ban on microbeads in cosmetic products has been introduced and the village of Ullapool recently become the first in Scotland to outlaw plastic straws after a campaign by schoolchildren. Two ferry companies have just announced they will follow Ullapool’s lead, with the Scotch Whisky Association and a growing list of local authorities saying they will do the same. Meanwhile, some of the big supermarkets and pharmacies have agreed to stop selling plastic-stemmed cotton buds, which are shown in Marine Conservation Society surveys to be a major polluter of seas and beaches.

Most of us nowadays are trying our best to be responsible recyclers, separating our trash and disposing of it in the correct bin. However, it may come as a crushing blow that some of our leftovers are not as recyclable as we may have thought. Teabags, for instance.

Green-fingered gurus say used tea leaves are a great – free – garden fertiliser. Once you have supped your brew, whole teabags can simply be dug in around plant roots and Bob’s your uncle. But only if the bags are fully compostable.

And most aren’t. Many brands actually use plastic – polypropylene – in their manufacture. Apparently it’s in the glue that keeps the teabags from falling apart, and means they are not entirely biodegradable. Although the actual quantity of plastic in each teabag is small, Brits drink about six billion cups of tea each year (I must claim responsibility for a large proportion). That adds up to a lot of polypropylene – about 150 tonnes annually.

So it’s great that the Co-op, which prides itself on ethical trading, is currently working on creating plastic-free teabags for its own-brand 99 tea. The firm sells around 367 million teabags each year, so the move should save nine tonnes of plastic from being dumped in bins and compost collections over the course of 12 months. Testing is still under way (I could perhaps help with that), but Co-op chiefs hope the new teabags will be on shelves soon.

So get the kettle on. Mine’s milk, no sugar.