Enjoying your cuppa without plastic teabags or coffee pods

Stuart Nixon, Hans Sholstrom and Steven Monks at Ahlstrom-Munksjo's Chirnside plant.
Stuart Nixon, Hans Sholstrom and Steven Monks at Ahlstrom-Munksjo's Chirnside plant.

It seems that the rest of us are only just starting to catch up with Ahlstrom-Munksjö’s Chirnside-based plant when it comes to looking after the planet.

Ten years ago staff at the Chirnside plant successfully came up with a solution to replace plastic-based tea bags and coffee pods used in coffee machines with their BioWeb TM product, a biodegradeable material which is compostable in industrial composting faciltiies and can be thrown out with food waste.

But they had to wait several years before coffee machine manufacturers and the general public were also ready to embrace such a sustainable approach to a cup of coffee.

“We built the line 10 years ago but the market wasn’t ready then,” said former Chirnside plant manager Stuart Nixon, now the company vice president in its beverage and casing division.

It is that level of technological capability and approach to sustainability that has seen the Chirnside plant become one of Ahlstrom-Munksjö’s most important sites in its network of 40 plants worldwide.

They are number two in the world for tea and coffee materials but number one when it comes to the use of sustainable materials.

The Co-op sells 367 million teabags a year and has been working with Typhoo and Ahlstrom-Munksjö to develop a method of heat-sealing bags as an alternative to the widely used plastic seal.

The biodegradable bags could be on shelves later this year across the Co-op’s entire own-label standard tea range and will be fully compostable in food waste collections. Many other brands such as Cliper and Twinings look like following suit.

“Many of us don’t know that plastic is widely used in tea bags,” said an Ahlstrom-Munksjö company spokesperson. In traditional tea bags plastic is used to allow the sealing. In some cases, even the entire tea bag could be made of plastic.

“To reduce the use of plastic, we have developed a plastic-free tea bag. We developed a technology called The Fiber+ which replaces the plastic with polylactic acid , a biopolymer usually made of corn starch. Fiber+ will be made at our Chirnside facility.

“Ahlstrom-Munksjö continuously develops new solutions to replace plastic with the fibre-based solution. We have only seen the beginning of what fibre-based materials and solutions can be used for.”

Last week the company’s newly appointed chief executive officer, Hans Sohlstrom, paid a visit to Chirnside and left very impressed with what he saw.

“It is a centre of excellence of skills in single service coffee pods, tea bags and casings for sausages,” said Mr Sohlstrom.

“Every one-in-10 teabags in the world is produced out of material manufactured at Chirnside, and one in every five tea bags worldwide is produced by Ahlstrom-Munksjö materials.

“There is a lot of knowledge and best practice and skills here in Chirnside which I wanted to experience first hand. I have been really impressed by what I’ve seen during this, my first visit to Chirnside.

“This is a site with a lot of innovation, foresight and sustainability. You can feel the quality-mindedness, the strong commitment to health and safety and it is a well structured, managed and led plant. This is a state of the art operation.”

Ahlstrom-Munksjö was created in 2017 when the Finnish company Ahlstrom merged with Sweden based Munksjö to create a global leader in sustainable and innovative fibre-based solutions. The company’s mission is to work towards “sustainable and innovative fibre-based solutions” in the food and beverage, automotive, furniture, non-food consumer goods, construction, health care and life science, general industry and energy markets.

Mr Sohlstrom was shown around the multi-million site by Stuart Nixon and recently appointed UK plant manager Stephen Monks. He also met the 139 employees at Chirnside, where not only the products but the whole environment is about sustainability.

“We try and walk the talk when it comes to waste,” explained Mr Nixon. “This plant has sent zero waste to landfill since 2013.”

“The Chirnside plant now has a highly skilled workforce, said Stephen Monk, the recently appoint plant manager.

The skill set we require is specific. We offer an alternative career path – an apprenticeship with a commitment to help people through university if that works out.”