The Scandalous Plastic in Tea Bags – Who Knew?

The Scandalous Plastic in Tea Bags – Who Knew?

Oh tea-bags, you innocent-looking things, you. Thinking that just by turning yourselves into a delicious cup of tea I wouldn’t question you. In fact, I didn’t question you. Luckily for me, others did, which led me to this revelation: teabags contain plastic.

Last July I decided to switch to loose leaf tea because I found it hard to find teabags that were plastic-free. By plastic-free, I mean teabags in boxes neither smothered in plastic on the outside, or teabags wrapped in plastic inside the box instead. I also got thinking about how wasteful teabags were compared to loose leaf tea, and how much better the latter tastes.

But not once did it occur to me that the majority of teabags are actually made with plastic.

The First Revelation: Teabags Contain Plastic

Browsing the Trashed website (read my review of this powerful documentary), I came upon the list “10 Small Things”. Nestled between “Use a wooden toothbrush” and “Shop at the Farmers’ Market” (both things I’ve discussed here many times!), I found this: “Have a nice (for the environment) cup of tea”. It turns out that teabags are actually only 70-80% biodegradable because they also contain polypropylene!

Not only that, but apparently 165 million cups of tea are drunk in the UK alone every day. So whilst the plastic in one teabag might seem negligible, all those cups of tea are actually contributing surprisingly to plastic waste.

Trashed Movie 10 Small Things
Sneaky screengrab from the Trashed film website: One of their ten tips for reducing waste is using loose leaf tea – because teabags contain plastic!

Revelation Two: Almost ALL Teabag Manufacturers Use Plastic in their Teabags

Feeling like an investigative journalist, I dug out the 2010 Which? article which found that the majority of teabags, including those by PG Tips and Teadirect, contained polypropylene (plastic #5). In fact, they only found one brand that didn’t: Jacksons of Picadilly. A Guardian article also published in 2010 stated that (according to the UK Tea Council) 96% of those 165 million cups of tea drunk in the UK every day were made with teabags. It also revealed that Twinings, Clipper, Tetley and Typhoo also make their teabags using plastic.

Twinings! I was so pleased last year when I thought I’d finally found a plastic-free brand of teabag. Now I find that they may not use plastic in their packaging but they’re using it in the actual teabag!

Something else caught my eye in the article, and it made me really mad. It’s a quote from Teadirect’s Whitney Kakos (who according to the internet, was the Sustainability Manager for Teadirect in 2010). She said: “Most consumers don’t notice [the polypropylene] and probably don’t care.”

Well I’ve noticed, and I care, and I don’t think I’m the only one!

Revelation Three: The Research is OLD but the findings are CURRENT

These articles were written in 2010, which was four years ago, so it’s possible that things have changed. Whilst I was busy researching all of this, by chance (or destiny?!) another plastic-free blogger @Westywrites was doing her own research into teabags, and contacting all the companies in question asking whether they still use plastic in their teabags.

Not writing letters and sitting patiently for a reply, she was straight onto Twitter to find out what was going on.

Here’s what she asked:

[Dear Tea Company] Can you please let me know if you use plasticisers, or a similar material, in your tea bags? Thank you.

Here are the answers (so far):

Plastic Teabags Twitter

(There’s since been a phone call to PG Tips, who confirmed that yes, their teabags contain plastic).

Revelation Five: The World’s gone Mad

This is the final revelation: something I discovered yesterday. You can now buy tea in individual plastic pods (like the coffee pods)!

Tea pods
Individual portions of tea in individual single-use plastic pods. What a waste. Photo borrowed from my friend Amy.

These aren’t teabags containing plastic, they’re worse! Individual plastic pods with single portions of tea! What’s wrong with the world? How hard is it to use a teabag? A plastic-free one, actually, might be fairly hard. Okay then, how about just using a teapot and strainer?!

 The Solution: Drink Loose Leaf Tea!

The best zero-waste option for tea drinkers everywhere is to make the switch from teabags to tea leaves. The tea is superior quality and tastes far better, and you’re helping keep plastic out of the environment.

Use a teapot, brew some proper tea leaves and enjoy a refreshing plastic-free cup of tea. Just remember to use a strainer!
Use a teapot, brew some proper tea leaves and enjoy a refreshing plastic-free cup of tea. Just remember to use a strainer!

Now I want to hear from you! Did you know that teabags contained plastic? Are you as mad as me about this?! Do you use teabags or are you already a loose leaf tea drinker? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Footnote – I’m so mad about this I’m starting a campaign! I going to write (and encourage you to write) to all the teabag-producing companies telling them we don’t want plastic in our tea! Here are the details of the Plastic-Free Tea campaign and some of the responses. Let me know how you get on!

150 Responses to The Scandalous Plastic in Tea Bags – Who Knew?

  1. I was aware that tea bags contain plastic but didn’t know how much. Every time I make a cup of tea I think about this. I also think about the individually wrapped teabags in paper that seem a bit too shiny to be just paper.

    The thing that stops me from switching to loose leaf tea, however, is that I find it gard to find loose leaf tea that doesn’t have a foil/plastic bag containing the leaves.

    Something that concerns me about this misinformation of teabags is how people deal with their waste. A lot of people put their teabags into compost so plastic may be getting into people’s food that they grow themselves. The paper bags that individual teabags come in… what happens to then at the recycling plant?

    • Thanks for your comment Julie! Someone told me that you can soak the envelopes in a glass of water. If they are still intact in a week, they are plastic! I tried this with the Pukka tea sachets (I was at an event that had them) and it stayed perfect for two weeks! So whilst their teabags are plastic-free, the packaging isn’t.

      Finding loose leaf tea plastic-free can be a challenge, but some places sell in tins or in paper. You’re unlikely to have much luck at the supermarket, though!

      In theory, the paper bags are recyclable. In practice, they are so small that they might not make it through the machinery to be recycled.Recycling is complex and putting something in the right bin doesn’t guarantee the end result!

  2. I only use teabags when I’m drinking tea away from home but it’s nothing like as good as loose leaf. Now I have another good reason not to use them. I will start using an infuser instead when I can’t use a pot!

  3. Polyester is biodegradable. I’m not saying it is good to have plastic tea-bags, but you may want to add this information to your decision making.

    • Hi Anni, unfortunately whilst natural polyesters are biodegradable, very few synthetic ones are thought to biodegradable: the majority are not biodegradable. Regardless, the plastic most commonly used in teabags is polypropylene, another type of plastic that is also not biodegradable.

      Biodegradability aside, using fossil fuels to make tea bags seems a little unnecessary when we can just use loose leaf tea instead, I think!

  4. I believe Red Rose tea changed their bags and they are now made from plant material. As for them still containing plastic that I do not know.

    • Hi Jackie, that’s good news – so long as the plant material isn’t bioplastic! (Personally, I don’t like plant-based bioplastic because it only biodegrades in hot composting systems, is made from corn so may be contaminated with GM, and uses a lot of resources to make – which seems unnecessary for something that’s used for minutes!) Usually the bioplastic bags are labelled as “silk”. Hopefully these are okay! : )

  5. I wasn’t aware of this fact either. I love tea and I drank loose tea even before embarking on my ZW journey but I still used teabags as well. (I once got a few silken handwoven teabags – at least this luxury was biodegradable – but I am not going to imagine the little hands that did the weaving…) Anyway, I am now consciously choosing loose tea and use the exact infuser as Jo from comment below) at work and a strainer at home. I have recently found a tea place where I can shop into my reusable tea tin – the cashier was so impressed with my ‘shopping method’ :))
    On the other hand, my boyfriend loves the Irish breakfast tea and he finds making loose tea too much hassle(men!) so I do buy the biggest box of Lyons black tea to minimise the packaging as the box is wrapped in a thin plastic film. You inspired me to tweet the Lyons Tea company (one of two favourite tea brands in Ireland) to find out about their approach to teabags and they tweeted back that they don’t use any plastic and their teabags are fully biodegradable. That’s a yipee right there. It’s still a compromise but one I can live with.

    • That’s great news that you have a tea store that you can shop at and bring your own container : ) We have a few here but I know it’s a luxury not everybody has. Good to hear Lyons don’t use plastic in their teabags. I think asking questions is important – I think for too long I just made assumptions about things. Now I always like to ask questions before assuming anything!

      We all make compromises ; ) And I think they often seem to involve partners/boyfriends/husbands!

  6. Thanks so much! I had no idea! I was speaking to a family member the other day who told me that they also put dye in tea so that when the hot water is poured in it changes colour straight away! I have been drinking lemon myrtle tea – leaves straight from my tree, which has been quite nice.

    • Dye in tea – is that true Che?! I bet some of the cheaper brands have thought about it at least! Teabag tea is a inferior grade to loose leaf too – so many reasons to switch!

      I love lemon myrtle. One of my favourite scents – but I haven’t tried tea… yet!

  7. Hi Lindsay, after reading your blog post I emailed Twinings about their tea bags and they were very quick to respond:

    “Twinings tea bag paper is produced from the abacá plant which belongs to the banana family, Musaceae. It is chosen due to its long, strong fibres. The ‘String and tag’ tea bags are sealed by crimping the paper tightly down the centre and folding and using a cotton stitch at the top, these do not have any polyethylene component. As such these teabags do not contain plastic.”

    I think, given this information, that it is unfair of you to use them as a poster image for your otherwise, very insightful and relevant post. Considering how much your post has been shared you might consider changing it.

    I have no affiliation with Twinings – I’m just a journo that likes to check my facts. Plus I love Twinings Earl Grey Tea – it’s my saviour on hungover mornings :)

    Cheers, Deb

    • It might have something to do something with the fact that the article was written 2 years ago. Perhaps Twinings changes their teabag strategy since…but I agree, if that’s the fact, the pic should be changed.

    • Hi Deborah and thanks so much for your comment! That’s great news. I did originally write this over 2 years ago, so it is good to hear that things have changed. Twinings phased out using a staple on their teabags some time after 2011 so this image of my tea bag is pretty old now. When I wrote this Twinings tea bags contained plastic – I found little plastic skeletons in my worm farm years later!

      I guess I wasn’t to know when I wrote it that two years later it would suddenly get so much traffic two years on. I’ll have to take another photo – it’s a case of remembering to take my camera when I go to the store, I think!

      Thanks for the suggestion! : )

    • Hi,
      I’ve recently emailed Twinings regarding their 80 pack English Breakfast Organic Fair trade teabags, and they confirm these do contain plastic. This is their response:-

      “Our standard teabags (Heat-seal) are used for such as Earl Grey and English Breakfast, to name a couple, and many of our infusions and Green teas. This paper is produced from a natural plant based cellulose material and contain no plastic in the fibres. However, these teabags are “heat sealed” tea bags, and so the paper also has a very thin film of polypropylene, a plastic, which enables the two layers of the tea bags to be sealed together.

      We would not recommend that teabags are used directly on the soil as a ‘fertilizer’ or soil conditioner, as they are likely to take a longer time to breakdown. We would recommend that they are composted in a compost bin, or wormery first to optimize the availability of any nutrients for the plants.”

      • Thanks for sharing this Elaine! You’ll notice that I did change the cover image. It wasn’t that I intended to single Twinings out, it was just that I had a Twinings tea bag in my cupboard at the time I wrote this! Sad to hear that after all the publicity though, they still have not completely changed their ways :/

        • I will definitely be drinking loose leaf tea from now on. It tastes so much better! Thanks for opening my eyes to this issue.
          P.s. have just received a reply from Clipper to confirm they still use polypropylene in all their unbleached tea bags.

  8. thank you. That does it! I’ve been using Twinings for years, and always put them in the compost bin, and wondering if I should switch to loose leaf, but I’m wondering no more!

  9. From Nerada Tea

    Thank you for your enquiry.
    Nerada Tea is continually keeping up to pace with consumer health issues and
    from time to time you will see changes in our production. Nerada Tea has
    HACCP and GMP Management System Certification, which are audited yearly. We
    make every effort to ensure our ingredients and all materials used, including
    the paper, are of the highest possible standard. Our paper is manufactured
    from a specially selected blend of high quality manila hemp. This has been
    oxygen whitened, ie. not treated with chlorine or chlorine based compounds.
    The paper also includes a small percentage of cellulose and thermoplastic
    fibres. These are necessary to ensure the sealing of the bags. The heatseal
    paper is certified as a food grade paper internationally and is manufactured
    for the specific purpose of infusions, tea, herbs and coffee in boiling water.
    The thermo-plastic fibres in the paper are not chemically broken down in any
    way so as to leach into the infused beverage – so it is 100% safe when used
    for the purpose it was made for. However, the heatseal paper is not 100%
    bio-degradable due to small amount of thermo-plastic fibre it contains.
    Nerada (along with many other tea packers in the world) use teabag machines
    that use heat to seal the filter paper closed so for us there is no other
    alternative. The paper itself is sustainable and safe. The main component is
    manila hemp the cultivation of which is in itself is sustainable.

      • I’m very sorry to hear about Nerada Teas, they are my favourite herbal teas. I had emailed them after first reading your article and not received a reply to date, so it was good to read their reply to you. Looks like growing our own herbal teas is the only way as you never seem to find packs of loose herbal teas, unless some of the specialist tea shops in the cities do them? Thanks for your interesting and informative article.

  10. I have an EVEN BETTER solution. I grow a lemon myrtle tree in my backyard, and every few weeks I take a small branch inside to dry out the leaves. I crunch a couple of these into a mug and pour boiling water over them. Ta daa! A caffeine free, packaging free, refreshing cuppa! :)

  11. It gets harder and harder to get loose leaf tea. I have both types,but from now on,the tea bags are out ! Thank you for this information.H

    • Hi Heath, thanks for your question. I don’t think any plastics are considered carcinogenic, it is the additives that are used that seem to have health implications. As for anything being absorbed into the water, it was discovered that BPA (an additive of polycarbonate plastic) was getting into water fairly recently, and I’m not sure any tests have been done on teabags. It is known that plastic degrades on heating but health implications of plastic are mostly unknown. Considering there is a completely safe and simple alternative – using loose leaf tea – I personally have chosen to avoid teabags.

  12. Thanks so much for this article. We drink a lot of tea in our house and I had no idea. I looked into going loose leaf recently and didn’t because crazily it was much more expensive but this has motivated me to do it anyway. I have been making steps this year to move my family towards zero waste – I say towards because it is a work in progress as we have no bulk food store any where near us and our current house building, 2 kids, wedding planning schedule doesn’t make visiting the few farmers markets a fair way away a consistent option. One area I am really struggling with on a tight budget (I am in Australia by the way) is that the bulk food stores sell their produce so much more expensively than what I can buy it elsewhere. For example coffee 3 times the price, laundry liquid 4 times the price. I have started making my own cleaning and laundry and dishwashing products from basic ingredients but other things aren’t as easy to DIY and having to DIY everything is a little time consuming right now. I saw a great facebook post by someone yesterday exposing Woolworths pricing practice of making excessively packaged fruit and veg much cheaper than zero packaged items and I can’t help but lament that pricing is a huge disincentive to reducing our packaging ways. I will keep searching though. Thanks

    • Hi Siobhain, thanks so much for commenting! Loose leaf tea can seem expensive (especially if you look at the price per kilogram!) but it does go a lot further. Teabags are made with “dust” which is a low grade tea, and loose tea is better quality. as someone who always reused their teabags a couple of times minimum (I prefer weak tea) I’ve found that I can get a few pots out of loose leaf tea. (I don’t drink black tea, more green tea, peppermint tea etc so this might not be the same with black tea.) So you might find that overall it isn’t much more expensive. Definitely play around with quantities – you might be surprised!

      I find that bulk stores differ wildly in price. Our local store is great but it has a focus on natural, healthy foods and a lot of its products are organic, so it is expensive. There are some Italian bulk stores that are very affordable further away, but factoring in a 40 minute trip each way means I tend to use the local store – time is money too. That said, for some things I wait until I am heading to the other store. I found that over time I learned which places were more affordable for different things, and some stuff I tended not to buy in favour of other, cheaper things. For example, I tend to buy more lentil-type things and oats now. Popping corn is a great, cheap snack.

      Coffee is on that varies wildly. Our local bulk store sells beans at $69/kilo. The cheap 40 minute away store sells coffee beans for $20/kilo. That is a massive difference! There’s no way I’d pay that much for coffee, but we drink it often and the other place is too inconvenient for regular shops. Eventually we found a local cafe that roast their own beans and refill bags, that costs $35/kilo. Not the cheapest but more convenient and really fresh. Over time you’ll probably find there are more options and you can find a way that works for you.

      For me, what helped regarding the pricing was that I wouldn’t look at the plastic-packaged stuff at all. That way I wouldn’t be tempted, or feel ripped off. I’d have a shopping list, and then I’d look at the loose stuff and my option was “buy it” or “don’t buy it” if I felt it was too expensive. I wouldn’t even know what the “cheaper” option was – I removed it from my radar. Am I happy to pay $4 for an avocado? Either yes or no, but no sneaking over to the plastic section to find that they are cheaper and feel tormented! One thing that really helps with this is learning what’s in season. When stuff is in season it is usually cheaper loose. The supermarkets won’t tell you, but the internet will ;) Another useful tip is finding out what freezes well. You can freeze avocados and bananas, for example, so when they are cheaper you can stock up.

      I hope that helps! I hear your frustration. Whereabouts in Australia are you? I’d love to give you some more location-specific tips! Let me know and maybe I can put you in touch with someone closer to you! : ) Good luck with it all. And don’t give up the search! x

  13. Thanks for your insightful research! What really got me started was visiting a Café, (I can’t remember which one), in Manchester Arndale in 2014, whereupon lifting the Teabag out of the cup, I was curious to see that the ‘side’ (of the Teabag) appeared to be ‘shiny’?
    Upon closer examination, I found that the ‘entire’ Teabag had a ‘plasticated’ feel to it? In fact the ‘whole’ Teabag was completely made of plastic, (with ‘diagonal’ vent holes) and not a single strand of paper!
    My first reaction was absolute rage that in an ‘environmental’ age, how could a Tea Producer (be so wilfully ignorant) as to actually make damaging products like this? And with your quote of one of them saying that the public ‘probably don’t care’, stretches incredulity to the maximum!
    What should be an absolute ‘given’ (by all Tea Producers) is that ALL Teabags are ‘bio-degradable’!
    Ged L

    • Hi Ged, thanks so much for your comment! I think this completely sums up how we just assume things are green (or want to believe they are so). Companies spend so much money convincing us of their sustainable credentials, and for me this was a real lesson in asking questions, not assuming and really looking into the details. I assumed that because it looks like paper, it was paper!

      What also shocks me is how many companies still think that using this plastic is harmless. I think over the coming years plastic is going to become more and more unacceptable -at least, single plastic like this, that is completely unnecessary. That’s my hope :)

  14. It should be no surprise really that plastic is used in teabags… plastic seems to be in so many foods in one way or another. But I’d not actually heard that, so, very interesting! Really quite horrific and something I’ve been eradicating from my food cupboard and kitchen as much as possible.

    And you’re right about using lose tea.. I have for three years now, I’d never go back to tea bags, it’s not even the same quality and flavour of tee. Lose tea is amazing, tastes like real tea… haha… no surprise there either… that’s what it is.. beautiful pure tea!

    Excellent article Lindsay, I shall give it a tweet!

  15. Has anyone checked to see if Twinings uses pesticides that are then in their loose tea? Does anyone know about Fortnum & Mason’s loose tea? Pesticides?

  16. Dear Lindsay

    I recently wrote to PG Tips about the plastic in their teabags – see copies my comments and their reply. They were not keen to admit that there is an issue, saying that “although there is a small amount of non compostable material this is not a problem”! which I find incredible!

    Best wishes
    Mike Armitage

    CEO and Editor – Nature Matters (www.naturematters.org.uk)

    Dear Emma

    I have been composting tea bags for many years, so I already understand the processes and benefits of doing this.

    However, my point is that tea bags do need to be made from 100% compostable/biodegradable materials, not just 80%. Polypropylene is a plastic and 20% is not a a small or insignificant amount when multiplied up by the vast number used daily and all of this material remains un-degraded in the environment.

    You say that plastics are not a problem but this is simply not true. There have been many campaigns to keep plastics and micro plastics out of our water courses and seas as they are causing pollution. The same is true of plastics on land as they can cause harm to birds and small mammals and cause littering. We need to keep all plastics OUT of our environment.

    I believe that it is possible to use another material that is biodegradable – plant- or fabric- based, possibly. In fact, I understand that there is already one brand of conventional teabag which is polypropylene-free made by Jacksons of Piccadilly, so it is technically and practically possible.

    I feel it is time for Unilever and PG Tips to change and put environmental issues to the forefront of their policies. Saying there is no problem is just burying your head in the sand.

    Yours sincerely

    Mike Armitage

    Hello From PG Tips,

    Thank you for your recent reply to myself, Mr Armitage.

    Like most of the tea bags in the UK, PG tips tea bags are made with around 80% paper fibre which is fully compostable along with the tea leaves contained in the bag. The remaining packaging includes a small amount of plastic which is not fully biodegradable, this is needed to create a seal to keep the tea leaves inside the bag.

    The tea bags can be added to a compost bin and the majority of the bag will decompose quickly adding moisture and nitrogen. If people are worried about the small amount of material that is not fully compostable we would recommend removing the bag before putting the tea leaves on the compost. Tea bags CAN be composted / added to food waste collection and although there is a small amount of non compostable material this is not a problem.

    I hope you find this information helpful.

    We hope that you carry on enjoying PG Tips and thank you for your continued interest.

    Yours sincerely,

    Emma Moffett
    Consumer Engagement Advisor

    • Hi Mike, thanks so much for sharing this. I really liked your letter, and of course the reply was very frustrating. I find the whole”everyone else is doing it” to be such a non-argument. Why should it matter that everyone else is doing it? I’m pretty sure at playgroup, school, work, life in general that doesn’t justify doing the wrong thing!

      We can just putting pressure on these companies and doing what we can. Not all companies use plastic, so it is definitely possible :)

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