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Teabag, Trashbag

March 24, 2009


Last week I had my intermediate presentation for this project. One of my Professors, Claus, starting talking about products that seem so natural and biodegradable (its a long word so lets call this “bdg” ), but are not because of one teeny tiny detail. He discussed teabags for example.

What is a teabag composed of?

+ tea leaves (100% bdg)

+ cloth pouch to hold the tea leaves (bdg)

+ a string (bdg as well)

+ a paper tag, usually with the company’s logo (bdg)

+ 2 staples holding the string to the tag and to the teabag (aha! not bdg)

Without the staples, the entire product could be composted. I honestly had forgotten there were even staples on teabags until Claus brought it up. Why a staple? There are a ton of alternate design solutions to attaching the string to the tag and to the teabag. You could sew it together. Tie it together with knots on each side of the string. Perhaps the string could just be a cloth strip that is an extension of cloth bag.


Above are hand-sewn silk muslin tea bags from 1903. No staples.

There are a lot of different ways to do it, but the point is why did a designer chose a certain method over another? Manufacturing? Probably. Or maybe because there is a certain tradition on how teabags should look nowadays? It is funny how some things can come full circle. The first teabags were used by silk sacks with string tied around them, which could currently be viewed as a little primitive. The teabags nowadays may be more sophisticated with its staple attachments, but are not the preferred methods when it comes to sustainability. So now, maybe tea companies will go back to sacks with ties knots on them. Does this mean we are going back to the stone ages? I don’t think so, it just means we are learning and even though our methods may get a blast from the past, we are ultimately moving forward.

What do you guys think?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Cristal permalink
    March 24, 2009 20:38

    It kinda reminds me of my geodynamics class today… We were discussing some complicated stuff of heat transfer in rocks and how far down you go to see a reversal in heat trends (don’t remember specifics, I wasn’t all there today…). But anyway, we used a formula to see that at some thickness, half a meter or 3 meters or something like that (again I was out of it, but not the point…) the trend is a 180 degree switch. ie, the hottest part of the day results in the coolest part at that depth, and vice versa, due to the time it takes heat to get through the rock.

    ANYWAY, he mentioned that several hundred years, when adobe houses were more prevelant, they were all built with much thicker walls than modern houses, specifically the depth I mentioned earlier. So in their “primitive” dwellings, when it was burning up hot outside, around 98 degrees farenheit, it was nice and cool, say, 68 inside. And when it got cool out at night, it would be nice and toasty inside cause the heat would get through the rock!

    Summary: Yes, especially today it would be considered primitive, or back to the stone ages to have several meters-thick walls all around, not to mention not very practical, but it would save so much energy and would be such a natural way to keep the temperature nice inside. Primitive methods aren’t always bad!!

    Wow, what a rant. Stupid staples, seems like it would make just as much sense to lightly stitch it up with some biodegradeable string. I mean you could always fold the bag more or something like that to keep the leaves from coming out….

  2. Andy permalink
    March 24, 2009 21:03

    If you think about it, you don’t even really need the string. I guess it allows the drinker to steep the tea faster by dunking the bag in and out of the water, but if you just let the bag sit at rest for 5 minutes the tea will have steeped just as much.

    I’ve definitely seen teabags that actually do not have strings (and hence no staples). Usually they’re for putting in teapots, but if you placed it in a cup of hot water it would have the same effect.

    I recognize that the string also helps to remove the bag from the water. But most tea drinkers will be using a spoon to stir milk, sugar, or both into the tea. It would not be very much more difficult to just use the spoon to remove a stringless bag. I’ve had the paper and string fall off of a teabag, it wasn’t the end of the world.

  3. M.L. Schultz permalink
    March 25, 2009 04:04

    Although they’re not bdg, tea infusers do cut back on paper waste, especially for avid tea drinkers. Unfortunately there are all sorts of infusers that are “designed” from being shaped like a bear to being shaped like a teapot, which causes excess, then waste. This relates to the communist argument of developing one item for one purpose, which would be a shame because those bear-shaped tea infusers are so darling.

    Yet, no matter what new tea-making invention hits the market (from a French press to something that resembles a coffee machine) it can never replace a teabag’s convenience.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to say is perhaps elongate and slim down the tea bag to encapsulate a popsicle stick of some sort with the loose tea so the tea gathers toward the bottom of your cup while the top of the stick is above the water line, therefore making it still removable sans spoon or damp fingers.

    Because in the end, no one wants to dirty a spoon or have tea stained fingers.

    • krystalpersaud permalink
      March 25, 2009 08:36

      Cristal >> I totally agree, primitive methods are not always bad!

      Andy >> That’s true, most tea drinkers do use spoons, but it does come down to convenience. Although not necessary it is more convenient to have a string, which I think is why ultimately the string has pretty much always been on teabags no matter how much the shape of the bag changes. The more convenient and easy to use a product is the more people tend to use it…people are lazy and product designers tend to accomodate that laziness. Something else that kind of bothers me…

      M.L. >> There are “tea wands” on the market that are basically long, aluminum tea pouches that contain tea leaves at the bottom and an area to hold and stir at the top. Yes, they work and yes it is and interesting product, but it does not really steep the tea any better than previous methods (I actually did this school product on tea wands last year). Anyways, tea infusers are not bdg themselves, but they are more sustainable. The tea leaves you put in them are 100% bdg. And if you keep using the same tea infuser (if it doesn’t break or you don’t throw it away every week) then it is okay you aren’t really actively creating a lot of waste. They are definitely a step up from teabags. The form of them is a whole other discussion I think (closed to innovative vs. excess).

      Thanks for the insights!

  4. krystalpersaud permalink
    March 25, 2009 09:31

    M.L. >> Sorry forgot to post this with the last comment. Here is a tea wand if you are interested >>

  5. March 25, 2009 09:35

    I’ve been using bag only tea bags for years, usually marketed as ‘pot strength bags’ or similar they have no tags, no string, and no staple. They brew faster than tea cup bags too. Straight into the compost.

  6. Rev Deb permalink
    March 25, 2009 11:25

    As I’m drinking my tea made with a tea bag with staples that I never paid much attention to before, I do sort of remember tea bags made with stitching instead of staples. And I’m not that old. I’m not sure how much more mechanical work it would take to insert stitching rather than staples, but it seems it could be cheaper for manufacturing than staples if the application could be quickly done. I would emphasize cotton thread for that stitching.

    This also reminds me of something I saw not too long ago about someone taking teabags apart and using the tissue paper for art work. Of course it would have to be done before brewing the tea, but you could pop the tea into a strainer over your cup, add hot water, and spend some time creating art with tissue, string and that little flap of paper. Dump the tea in the compost bin and enjoy a little art. Smile.

    Thanks for an interesting blog and that great tea bag picture. As a fiber artist, that looks like art to me!

  7. Steve permalink
    March 25, 2009 11:57

    Staples will eventually rust and become iron-rich dirt.

  8. March 26, 2009 14:51

    I am a big tea drinker and I have to say, most teas i drink do not have staples, the string is usually sewn in place of the staples. but what I noticed esp. in the states is that most teabags are seperately packaged again within the box, in Germany most of that seperate packaging was paper, in the states it’s often more like plastic.. And paper coated with stuff.
    Often times I don’t use teabags at all for loose tea I will just take a pinch and throw it in my cup. works just as well ;).

  9. Lori permalink
    April 29, 2009 22:43

    a) a lot of the tea bags that i use also have no staples, but a fair amount do. i suppose in the US it is a lot more common to find stapled/individually packaged tea bags than not.

    b) this is kind of beside the point, but this entry is SO CUTE because, well, first of all it’s about tea bags, and second the hand-sewn tea bags in the pic are adorable. but i digress.

    c) yeah tea wands!!!!

    d) really, people are just lazy and would rather not steep and then strain loose-leaf tea. (i myself am guilty of this. i even own a nice strainer that i…misplaced.) that, or the companies that make tea bags are too money/time stingy to spend the extra half a cent stitching up tea bags. i would assume it’s more expensive to manufacture non-stapled tea bags……. is this true? you’d think a staple would cost more than a machine sewing one or two stitches into a dinky little tea bag.

    – lw


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