Toronto’s Genuine Tea company, founded by a husband-and-wife team dedicated to so-called third-wave tea, bills itself as a force for good, not just a source for good – frankly, excellent – tea.
The company sells premium bagged and loose-leaf teas that are pitched as sustainable, fresh and focused on the farmers who grow the leaves, not the brokers and multinational giants that have traditionally dominated the tea industry.
“At Genuine Tea, we pride ourselves on leading the Third Wave Tea movement in Toronto,” the company notes on its website. “As more people join… tea makers around the world will be acknowledged, appreciated and fairly compensated for their craftsmanship.”
Genuine’s focus on ethics and sustainability extends to its packaging, too – at least in theory. The standup plastic pouches the company uses to sell loose-leaf tea are advertised as being made from “100 per cent, earth-friendly, recyclable packaging.” “This bag will not end up in the landfill,” each pouch declares, unequivocally, in red, capital letters.
There’s only one problem. That’s not true – not in Toronto, or almost any other Canadian jurisdiction, either.
“The claim that the bag will not end up in landfill is outrageous,” said John Mullinder, who spent 30 years in the Canadian recycling industry. “How can they possibly guarantee that?”
The truth is the City of Toronto does not accept standup plastic pouches, of any kind, in the blue bin. And even if it did, the flexible plastic used to make Genuine’s pouches is only rarely collected and turned into something new.
“Every report we see on (recycling) data suggests the same thing, which is that the film is really not recycled in any great amount,” said Karen Wirsig, the plastics program manager at Environmental Defense, an NGO. “That plastic pouch is almost certainly going to end up in landfill, if it does not blow away from your blue box and just end up directly in a waterway somewhere, or in a park.”
Genuine tea is hardly an outlier in this. According to a report by the Canada Plastics Pact, an industry organization, released last year, just one per cent of flexible plastic packaging gets recycled in Canada today. But claims about “100% recyclable” materials are rife on plastic packaging of all kinds, from meal kits, to coffee pods to candy bags.
And the story behind the Genuine Tea’s packaging is a bit more complicated than it might first appear, according to the company co-founder and co-owner, David O’Connor.
The pouches are, in fact, the company third attempt to find a sustainable way to package and ship tea, he said. They represent less an example of cynical greenwashing – environmental marketing, essentially, without any environmentalism – O’Connor argued, than a good-faith effort by a small company to do the right thing while stuck inside a system that, on plastics at least, is set up to favor wrongs.
“I want to do the right thing, otherwise, I would be using (cheaper) non-recyclable material,” he said. “Right now we’re using what we thought was the least worst solution… our intention is to continue to get better.”
O’Connor founded Genuine Tea with his wife, Sarah Wilcox, after the pair spent a formative five years in Taiwan, learning Mandarin and studying the local tea culture.
He admits that the landfill claim he put on the Genuine pouches is wrong, but he said that when they were printed, in 2020, he legitimately believed it was true.
“It was totally innocent,” he said. “I spent all this time doing the research and spoke to the manufacturer. And they were like, ‘No, it’ll be recyclable. It’s 100 per cent recyclable. ‘And I was like,’ Yeah! Amazing! Finally, we have a solution. ‘ ”
(TricorBraun, the company that makes the blank bags Genuine tea uses, said in a statement that it “does not market this standup pouch as 100 per cent recyclable.” Genuine, meanwhile, is responsible for all the claims printed on the bag.)
The pouches field recyclable. The issue is they aren’t likely to be recycled. That’s a distinction environmentalists believe the plastics industry has deliberately blurred in an effort to make their products appear more sustainable than they are.
“I’m shocked at how common these claims are,” Wirsig said.
In other words, Genuine Tea is by no means alone. And O’Connor says he bought into the same blurry language as a businessman that consumers are falling for in the grocery store.
When Genuine Tea first opened for business, the company shipped tea in industry-standard, resealable, mixed-resin, standup plastic pouches.
For manufacturers, the standup pouch is an incredibly useful product. It’s lightweight, durable, easy to ship, easy to brand and can keep products fresh after multiple openings at home.
But for recyclers, the pouches are a nightmare. The different resins (or kinds of plastic) that go into a typical standup pouch make it labor intensive to separate and often prohibitively expensive to break down. That’s why so many municipal recycling programs, including Toronto’s, refuse to accept standup pouches at all.
O’Connor knew none of this when he first got into the tea business. “As small businesses, it’s really challenging navigating it,” he said. “I’m a tea expert, not an expert on, you know, waste renewable stuff.”
But when customers starting calling Genuine out for using non-renewable packaging, the company pivoted – quickly.
“We were kind of bummed because we thought they were recyclable,” O’Connor said. “So we switched to a compostable biodegradable material… And then basically, we were called out for greenwashing.”
It turned out that the “compostable” plastic packages Genuine moved to aren’t actually accepted for compositing anywhere in Ontario. The City of Toronto, like other Ontario municipalities, tells residents to throw any packaging labeled “biodegradable” or “compostable” in the trash. So Genuine pivoted again.
The company turned to TricorBraun. It offered what seemed to O’Connor like the perfect solution: a less complicated standup pouch with no resealable top.
The unit cost was higher: about 45 cents a bag compared to 10 cents for a typical mixed resin pouch. But O’Connor felt like it was worth it to get what he believed was a greener product.
“I spent extra money to not only invest in this material, but then to get low-tack labels so that they would come off easily,” he said. “I just went overboard with trying to figure out how to do it.”
O’Connor says that, knowing what he knows now, he wouldn’t make the same packaging claims again. The next time Genuine Tea prints and orders pouches, he said, he won’t include the false assertion that “this bag will not end up in the landfill.”
At the same time, he does not think it would be practical, or necessarily more environmentally friendly, to move away from plastic entirely.
“Ultimately, we need to keep the tea fresh, so we need to protect it from UV, we need to protect it from oxygen,” he said. “Then you get into this whole other thing where people want you to put it in a glass jar, and it’s like, well, actually, people just throw out glass jars anyway. … And then on top of that, you would have the (extra CO2) emissions on shipping heavy glass. So there’s really no ideal solution. “
O’Connor wants to see governments invest in better recycling facilities – something some believe will happen as Ontario shifts to a new curbside recycling system starting next summer – and put more pressure on manufacturers to produce more sustainable packaging.
“I do think that the majority of the responsibility lies between the packaging manufacturers and the municipalities,” he wrote in an email. “(B) ut the weight of it all seems to fall on a small, family-owned tea company.”
In his own small way, O’Connor is staking out a position on a much wider, more fractious debate in the plastics and recycling worlds.
There are those, like Wirsig, who believe there is no recycling solution to the plastics waste problem.
“My view is people should stop making pouches, brands should stop packaging their things in pouches, and we should stop buying them,” she said.
But there are others, and not just in the plastics industry, who see lightweight plastic packaging as a useful tool with a post-use problem.
“From the context of a life-cycle assessment, these lightweight, flexible plastics aren’t as bad as people think,” said Calvin Lakhan, co-investigator of the Waste Wiki project at York University.
Regardless, what even critics agree on is that Genuine Tea is far from alone in confusing “recyclable” for “going to be recycled” on its pouches.
“Just put that on the pile of all these astounding claims we’re seeing on plastic packaging,” Wirsig said. “I think that part of the problem is there are very few rules on this stuff.”
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