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Is there Plastic in my Tea?

Many tea bags contain plastic. Ruth Walton from The Green Shopper, explains why this hidden plastic is significant, and what we can do as consumers. 

Many of you will have heard that some teabags contain plastic. Consumer awareness is growing fast, following the 2017 BBC2 documentary ‘Inside the Factory’.

In fact, most ‘pillow’ and ‘pyramid’ style teabags rely on polypropylene fibres embedded in the outer layer to heat-seal the edges shut. Millions of teabags are home composted or put into food waste schemes. They end up in the soil, where the microscopic plastic fibres accumulate and pose a risk to wildlife.

This environmental pollution may be invisible, but it is not insignificant. With 165 million cups of tea drunk in Britain each day, that’s a whole lot of microplastic on its way into our soil and water.

Key points

  • Many tea bags contain plastic.
  • The alternative, Polylactic Acid (PLA), can contain material from genetically modified sources.
  • PLA teabags should go into council food waste, as they won’t break down in most home composting conditions.
  • The best way to dispose of plastic tea bags is to rip them open and compost the leaves, but put the bag into the bin.
  • Watch out for hidden plastics in sachets or string-and-tag bags.

What is microplastic?

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, officially defined as any piece of plastic less than 5mm in size. There are two categories: 

  • primary microplastics are up to 5mm in size when manufactured; 
  • secondary microplastics are small pieces made from larger items degrading in the environment.

Research has found them turning up in all sorts of places, including seafood, salt, tap water and even in our bodies.

Which teabags are plastic-free?

Teabags   Company 
Clipper (Q) all teabags made from October 2018 use GM-free PLA
Dr Stuart’s/Higher Living (E) some string-and-tag; pyramids use corn starch PLA
Essential (W) all string-and-tag
Hampstead Tea Company (W) some string-and-tag, some GM-free PLA pyramids
Heath & Heather (W) all string-and-tag
Pukka (Q) all string-and-tag
Teapigs (W) pyramids use corn starch PLA
Yogi Tea (T) all string-and-tag
Some plastic-free Brew Tea (GS) boxes of 40 bags are plastic free, others will switch in 2019
Clearspring (W,E) some loose tea, and plans for plastic free teabags in Spring
Dragonfly (MF) House and Speciality ranges are plastic free
PG Tips (GS) pyramids are plastic free, rest due to switch in 2019
Steenbergs (Q) mostly sells loose tea (no teabag); and is phasing out teabags
Traidcraft (W) some loose tea (no teabag)
Twinings (Q) only pyramids are plastic free
Action or plans for plastic-free  Hambleden Herbs (T) will have some plastic-free teabags in the new year
Cafedirect/London Tea Company (Q) has goals to reduce plastic
Qi (Q) for more details see below
Redbush (F) has spoken to manufacturer about finding alternative
Tetley (MF) has plans (is plastic free in catering packs)
Yorkshire Tea (T) has plans
No response or no plans Floradix/Salus
London Fruit & Herb/Ridgways/Typhoo
Taylors (its other brand Yorkshire Tea has plans)
Tick Tock Tea/11 O’Clock

KEY: Answers taken from questionnaire responses (Q), emails (E), The Green Shopper (GS) or Moral Fibres (MF) website, companies’ own websites (W) or Facebook (F), or response to tweets (T). NB This only covers the teabags themselves, not sachets they may be wrapped in, or wrapping on the box. It also only covers brands in our Tea and Herbal Tea guides.

Why Qi can’t switch yet

The Qi brand responded to our question saying:

“We have invested heavily though pre-finance for the farmers’ association to purchase tea bag packing machines. The cost of machines which do not use heat sealing is prohibitive for us. The only current options we have to achieve fully plastic free would be to act like everyone else and just export a bulk commodity (tea) for packing in the UK or EU, but this goes against everything we are trying to achieve within the communities we work with. That is adding value in the communities we work with."

“... Despite having a supplier of teabag paper which contains bioplastics, we are unable at present to use these for our Organic teas as they are not classed as GMO free … We have manufacturers of paper who are close to being able to provide the paper we need which can meet Organic standards”.

What about organic teabags?

You may be thinking to yourself “I’m fine – I only buy organic teabags”. Don’t be fooled. The outer layer of a teabag counts as packaging, which can contain plastic and still be certified as organic. Sign the petition by The Green Shopper to ask the Soil Association to stop certifying plastic teabags

What are plastic-free teabags made from?

Many ‘plastic-free’ pyramid teabags are made using polylactic acid (PLA). This is a plant-based polymer (sometimes referred to as a bioplastic) which is biodegradable but not domestically compostable. It can also be called Soilon. Plant material sources include corn starch, which can come from genetically modified (GM) maize, which cannot be used in organic teabags.

In February 2018, after 200,000 people signed a petition on the 38 Degrees campaign website, PG Tips announced it was going ‘plastic-free’ for its pyramid bags, with the rest of its teabags due to follow by 2019.

In February, PG tips confirmed “Our biodegradable teabags are made from PLA which is a material derived from corn, grown in the US. Current US corn growing practices produce a mixed stream of GM and conventional (non-GM) corn. However, the processing and manufacturing process uses a high heat process, and no detectable GM material remains ... Longer term, we are working with our supplier on the development of biodegradable teabags from other sources that are non-GMO crops.”

Plastic and GM free

At the end of October, Clipper announced that it has a GM-free PLA solution, meaning its new plastic-free heat-sealed bags can be certified as organic by the Soil Association. All Clipper tea bags produced from October 2018 are plastic-free. However, old stock may remain in shops for some time, so look out for a label on the pack.

‘String and tag’ bags

The other main type of teabag is the ‘string-and-tag’ style, where the paper layer is folded at the top and secured using a stitch or staple. These bags are usually used for herbal teas or in catering.

Not all string-and-tag bags are plastic free: look out for crimping around the edges which shows the bag might have been heat-sealed, and therefore contain plastic or PLA. Furthermore, they often come in individual sachets, which can contain a hidden layer of plastic to keep the packet airtight. The string can be made from polyester or cotton.

String-and-tag bags that are free from plastic can be composted at home. If you want to be completely sure your teabag is plastic free, it’s best to check with the manufacturer directly.

What about loose leaf?

If you want to minimise the waste caused by your daily cuppa, loose leaf tea is by far the best option.

Infographic: Guide to brewing Loose Leaf Tea

A metal in-cup infuser avoids the fuss of a pot and strainer. And lots of modern teapots have a built-in infuser, meaning that it’s easy to get the tea leaves into the compost and wash out the pot without clogging the sink.

Many high streets and markets have speciality tea merchants, where you can take your own container to be filled. These shops often have limited choice when it comes to fair trade and organic options but, luckily, there are a few plastic-free ethical loose-leaf options available to order online. 

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