Right now, you’re probably sitting back with a nice cup of Earl Grey – your freshly steeped tea bag still steaming on the side.
But take a closer look at that paper tea bag.
Sure, it contains tea and bergamot. Maybe some lavender, too. But does it also contain plastic?
Spoiler alert. It probably does!
Table of Contents
- What Are Microplastics?
- Microplastics in Tea Bags
- Are Silk (Nylon) Tea Bags Safe?
- What About Pressed Tea Bags?
- And String and Tag Tea Bags?
- So What is Polylactic Acid (PLA)?
- Does My Earl Grey Tea Bag Contain Plastic?
- How to Avoid Plastic in Tea
- How to Dispose of Plastic Tea Bags
- Does ‘Plastic-Free’ Mean Free From Plastic?
What Are Microplastics?
More than 750 times smaller than the width of human hair, microplastics are everywhere.
They’re inside our soil, our oceans, and the food we eat. They’re even inside of us!
The long-term effects of these microplastics are still unknown. But the research doesn’t look good.
And for the first time in history, microplastics have been detected in human blood, lungs, and stool.
While microplastics in freshly fallen snow from Northern Iran and Antarctica have scientists concerned.
But how did it get there?
And what does this have to do with Earl Grey tea?
Microplastics in Tea Bags
Horrifyingly enough, there might be a wad of plastic in your cup of Earl Grey tea! You just can’t see it.
Polypropylene (PP) is added to tea bags to heat seal them during manufacturing. This prevents them from popping open in your cup.
But this added ‘wet strength’ comes at a cost. And with every brew, you’re likely swallowing a hearty amount of microplastic.
It also means that your tea bag isn’t 100% biodegradable. As a result, it can’t be disposed of in your garden compost.
These discarded heat-sealed tea bags release billions of tiny plastic fragments into our ecosystem.
And over time, that plastic breaks down into micro and nano-sized particles.
Not only are microplastics invisible to the eye, but they’re also incredibly damaging to the environment.
Plastic Tea Bags in the UK
A 2020 study revealed that some of the biggest UK tea bag brands contained polypropylene and other non-biodegradable materials.
These will take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to decompose. And in the process, damage the environment irreparably.
As part of the study, each tea bag was placed into a jar of copper ammonia.
The tea bags made with polypropylene left a thin, plastic skeleton at the bottom of the jar.
Tea bags from Tetley, Twinings, and Yorkshire Tea, all left evidence of plastic.
Pukka, Clipper, and PG Tips (also part of the experiment) did not.
Plastic Tea Bags in North America
A year earlier, in 2019, a similar study took place at McGill University in Montreal.
In addition to finding that many local brands contained plastic. They discovered something else.
Water fleas exposed to the contaminated tea started to exhibit unusual behaviours. They also went on to grow abnormally. With many ballooning in size and acting erratically.
One of the worse offenders was ‘silk’ tea bags.
Brewed at 95°C (203°F), just one steeped silk tea bag released up to 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics.
Are Silk (Nylon) Tea Bags Safe?
Branded as a luxury product, silk tea bags are usually pyramid-shaped. The tea leaves are of higher quality (less broken). And they’re often more expensive than your average tea bag.
But the cost is far greater than any monetary amount.
And, this might shock you. But silk tea bags aren’t actually made with silk!
Instead, they use either nylon mesh or PET, which are (drumroll please) plastic! And fossil fuel-based at that.
Boo to silk tea bags.
Thankfully, many brands are switching to PLA – a bioplastic often made from cornstarch. But, while this plant-based product is biodegradable, it requires industrial composting.
What About Pressed Tea Bags?
Due to their popularity, pressed tea bags are one of the biggest plastic tea bag culprits.
Circle, square, or pyramid shaped – it’s the type of tea bag your nan would use.
In the past, those crimped edges would’ve been stuck together with polypropylene (plastic). And unfortunately, some still are.
To make things worse, those heat-sealed bags are treated with epichlorohydrin.
This bleaching process isn’t just for aesthetics, though. It supposedly increases the wet strength of your tea bag.
But those nasty chemicals (and plastic) then leech into your tea brew.
And String and Tag Tea Bags?
String and tag (or enveloped) tea bags are folded over at the top.
This origami-style design looks as though it would be plastic-free. But it’s held together with either a staple, stitch, or, more often than not, plastic.
Depending on the company, it could be PP or PLA (bioplastic).
So What is Polylactic Acid (PLA)?
Over the years, you’ve probably noticed a slew of plastic-free labels take over the tea section at your local supermarket.
But does plastic-free mean that your tea bag is free from plastic?
Well, not exactly.
After public outcry, many tea makers have switched from polypropylene (PP) to polylactic acid (PLA).
Also known as soilon, this bioplastic is entirely plant-based. And it’s made from anything from potatoes, cassava, and corn to sugar and soybeans. All renewable sources, of course.
Most PLA is biodegradable. But not always.
And when compared to non-renewable, petroleum (oil) based plastic (like PP), it releases fewer greenhouse gases during production.
Sounds awesome, right?
But while PLA is heralded as better than PP, it’s technically NOT plastic-free!
And there are some downsides to this bioplastic.
- Requires Special Industrial Composting
- Takes a Long Time to Breakdown on its Own
- Diverts Vital Food Resources
- More Pesticides, Fertilisers, and Land Needed
- Compost Contamination from Improper Disposal
- Not Always GM-Free or Biodegradable
- Not All Local Authorities Recycle PLA
Sure, PLA is better than full-out PP plastic tea bags. But it still isn’t great.
It’s a compromise, but the lesser of two evils nonetheless.
PP, PET, And PLA – What’s the Difference?
- Also Known as Polypropene
- Harder & More Heat Resistant than Polyethene (PE)
- Second Most Produced Plastic After PE
- Made from a Non-Renewable Fossil Fuel (Petroleum/Oil)
- Difficult to Break Up, Recycle, and Reuse
- Used in Plastic Bottles, Toys, Containers, Packaging, Appliances etc
- Takes Hundreds of Years to Degrade
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
- Produced from Ethylene Glycol
- Mainly used in Clothing (Polyester Fibres)
- Also Used in Containers, Packaging, Waterproofing, 3D-Printing etc
- Makes up 60% of the Polyester Fibre Global Demand
- Widely Recycled
- The Fourth-Most-Produced Polymer After PE, PP, and PVC
- Uses Less Crude Oil Compared to PE
Polylactic Acid (PLA)
- Also Known as Soilon
- Plant-Based Bioplastic
- Made from Lactic Acid, Lipids, and Plant Starch (e.g. Corn, Sugarcane, Potatoes, Cassava, Soy Beans, Beets, Wheat, Milk etc)
- Used in Tableware, Cutlery, 3D-Printing, Fishing Lines, Medical Implants etc
- Requires Industrial Composting (Chemical Hydrolysis and Microbial Digestion)
- Industrial Composting Takes 8-12 Weeks / 45 to 90 days
- No Toxic Fumes During Production or Incineration
- Looks Just Like Conventional Plastic
- Can Partically Degrade in H2o and Co2
- Requires High Temperatures to Fully Degrade
Does My Earl Grey Tea Bag Contain Plastic?
Unfortunately, it probably does.
A lot of tea bags marketed as plastic-free, contain PLA. That includes Organic and Soil Association Certified teas.
And, in some cases, that plastic-free label may simply refer to the packaging only. NOT the polypropylene-sealed tea bag inside.
Even “plastic-free” brands like Clipper use PLA in their tea bags. Clipper has since updated this to polypropylene-free. But others are yet to follow – still adopting the plastic-free label.
While PG Tips (also labelled “plastic-free”) uses American-sourced corn starch for their PLA. This means their tea bags likely contain GMO crops.
How to Avoid Plastic in Tea
When it comes to plastic, loose-leaf tea is a million times better than tea bags. All you need is some kind of strainer and you’re good to go!
You could use novelty infusers, reusable tea bags, and decorative teapots. Or, one of those fancy glass pots which allow you to watch the leaves as they unfurl.
Best of all, loose tea leaves can be dumped directly into the compost bin. That makes them the best 100% plastic-free option.
Tea crystals are still relatively new. But they do seem to be plastic-free. Win!
Tea crystals are especially convenient for on-the-go drinking. All you need to do is drop the crystals into a cup of hot water, stir, and enjoy.
Two of the best tea crystal brands are:
Tea Drops – Their Rose Earl Grey blend is organic, fair-trade, and plastic-free.
Pique Tea – Their Miss Grey Tea blend is triple toxin screened for pesticides and heavy metals.
How to Dispose of Plastic Tea Bags
So it turns out that your tea bag isn’t as plastic-free as you thought.
But how do you safely dispose of PP, PET, and PLA tea bags?
Polypropylene (PP) Tea Bags
Tea bags are mostly recyclable. They’re made from paper, after all. But as we’ve learned, some tea bags are heat-sealed using polypropylene plastic (PP).
If your tea bag contains PP, even trace amounts, it won’t fully break down in your food or garden waste – a thin skeleton will remain.
To avoid this, rip open the bag and dispose of them separately. The tea leaves can go into the organic waste or compost heap. While the bag will have to go into the general waste bin.
Unfortunately, only one percent of PP is recycled.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) Tea Bags
Like above, you’ll need to rip open the bag and empty the tea leaves into the food waste. The bag goes into the bin.
Polylactic Acid (PLA) Tea Bags
Although PLA is largely biodegradable, it needs the right conditions to do so.
As a result, it can’t be thrown onto your home compost heap to decompose on its own.
Instead, PLA tea bags require industrial composting. Something your local authorities can provide.
Just place the tea bag into your food or garden waste (tea leaves and all) where it can be collected and properly disposed of.
Just make sure that there isn’t any petroleum-based plastic mixed in there.
Does ‘Plastic-Free’ Mean Free From Plastic?
One tea bag alone won’t cause too much damage.
But consider that, in the UK alone, we drink over 60 billion cups of tea per year. Then, you might just realise the scope of the problem.
Unfortunately, almost every tea bag on the market contains either plastic or PLA. This means that for the eco-conscious consumer, tea bags can be a real issue.
Fortunately, however, there are plenty of plastic-free options!
Not only could you make the switch to loose leaf or tea crystals. But there are some tea bag brands that are 100% plastic-free (e.g. Pukka).
If your favourite brand is still using plastic tea bags, then why not reach out to them?
Most are making pledges to become plastic-free. So you might just be able to use their tea bags again, sooner than you think.