Posts

Is There Plastic in Your Teabag?

When I first heard that there was plastic in tea bags, I was shocked. It turns out I wasn’t the only one. The subsequent blog post I wrote about it (back in 2014) is my most popular post to date, having been shared more than 44,000 times. (Yes, 44 thousand. That’s a lot of shocked tea drinkers, right there.)

You can still read the original teabag post here, but I thought it was about time to write an update. After all, there’s still a lot of misinformation and confusion around which teabags contain plastic, and what the plastic-free options are.

There’s Plastic in Your Teabags

Can it be that every time we made a brew, we are stewing plastic in our cup alongside our tea leaves?

I do so hate to be the bearer of bad news, but yes.

If you’re a teabag-using tea drinker, it is more than likely that there’s plastic in your teabags.

Wait! I hear you say. Not all teabags are equal! True. When it comes to teabags, there are different types. Those different types use different types of plastic, and use it in different ways, but the majority still contain plastic.

There’s the regular pressed paper teabags (the ones with the crimped edges) and yes, these contain plastic. The main reason is that these crimped teabags are pressed shut using heat, and the plastic melts to seal them together. Typically the paper in these teabags contain 20 – 30% plastic.

Then there’s the premium ‘silken’ type, which are always made from plastic (not silk, like the name suggests).

The only teabag type that might be plastic-free is the string-and-tag variety: these can be folded shut and secured with a knot or a staple. But many suppliers of these teabags still choose to use paper with plastic fibres for added strength.

(If the teabag was just paper, and you left it to steep too long, the paper might break down and – imagine the catastrophe – there could be a loose tea leaf floating in your cuppa.)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that organic teabags would be plastic-free, but in fact, the majority of those contain plastic too.

Confusing? This graphic should help simplify things a bit:

The Main Types of Teabag – And What They’re Made Of

Pressed (Heat-Sealed) Teabags

These are the standard square, rectangular or occasionally round teabags that have crimped/pressed edges on all sides, and they always contain plastic. The two separate layers of paper need to stick together to keep the lea leaves in, and paper does not stick to paper by itself. Glue would dissolve in your tea – yuck!

Plastic (usually polypropylene, or less commonly a mix of polyethylene and a polyethylene co-polymer) is woven in between the paper fibres, and melts upon heating to seal the teabag shut. Typically these teabags contain 20-30% polypropylene.

In addition, some companies choose to treat their paper teabags with a chemical called epichlorohydrin to help prevent tears. This chemical is deemed a probable human carcinogen. It is also known to react in water to form another chemical, 3-MCPD, another possible human carcinogen.

Silken Teabags

Despite the name, silken teabags are made from plastic, not silk. Usually found in a pyramid shape, the fibres of silken teabags are woven to make them look like fabric.

These teabags are either made from fossil-fuel based plastic (usually nylon or PET – the same plastic that drinks bottles are made from: plastic #1), or plant-based plastic (PLA or poly-lactic acid, usually derived from corn or other plant starch: plastic #7).

When a company says their tea bags are made with cornstarch, they mean plant-based plastic.

Silken teabags are often spruiked as an eco-friendly choice, but teabags made from fossil-fuel based nylon or PET will last forever – clearly not eco-friendly at all. Plant-based plastic teabags are labelled “eco-friendly” as plants are a renewable resource.

Plant-based plastic is sometimes labelled biodegradable, or compostable. However, just because a silken teabag is made of plant-based plastic, that does not automatically mean it is biodegradable. It is more complicated than that.

Biodegradable means broken down by microorganisms over time. There is no stipulation for avoiding toxic residue, nor a requirement that the plastic breaks down into constituent parts, just that it is no longer visible.

Compostable means something different: that the product undergoes biological decomposition at a compost site, and breaks down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, leaving no toxic residue.

A product making either claim should quote the standards used in testing to determine this label. Without this, the claim is meaningless. (You can find out more about certification standards here.)

String-and-Tag Teabags

The filter paper used to produce teabags with a string and tag attached does not need to contain plastic polymer fibres: these teabags close by folding, and are secured by stitching or stapling, rather than by heat sealing.

However, many teabag producers (including organic brands) still choose to use paper with plastic (polypropylene) fibres to add strength to their teabags.

The string is usually made from cotton. If you find a plastic-free variety, these teabags are completely compostable.

Teabags made entirely of paper will rip more easily, and will disintegrate if left to stew in a cuppa. If your teabag seems remarkably resilient, the likelihood is that it contains some plastic fibres.

(If you want to see how teabags are made, this short clip from a BBC2 documentary will certainly open your eyes a little!)

Plastic-Free Tea: What Are the Solutions?

There are two solutions for truly plastic-free tea.

Option One: Look For Paper Teabags That Do Not Use Plastic As Reinforcement.

These will be the string-and-tag teabags, but check with the manufacturer as many brands still contain plastic.

Brands that have confirmed that they do not use plastic in their string-and-tag teabags include Tea Tonic, Pukka teas (although their envelopes are plastic) and Clipper (string-and-tag only: their pressed teabags contain plastic).

Bioplastic is still plastic (even if it’s labelled as biodegradable or compostable) so if you really want to choose a plastic-free teabag, steer clear of anything labelled bioplastic, plant-based plastic, or cornstarch.

Option Two: Choose Loose Leaf Tea

My absolute favourite option is to choose loose leaf tea. The lowest waste option is to buy from the bulk store. If that’s not practical, loose leaf tea can be purchased in tins and cardboard boxes that are fully recyclable.

Loose leaf tea is not as expensive as it appears. Loose leaf tea is often priced per kilo, whereas teabags are priced per bag, which makes it hard to compare.

Actually, it only takes a couple of grams of loose leaf tea to make a cuppa.

The other great thing for cheapskates like me (or rather, people who prefer weak tea) is that it’s much easier to brew a second cup reusing loose leaves than it is with a teabag.

If teapot-washing isn’t your thing, tea steepers are a great way to make a single cup without the hassle of extra washing up.

If you aren’t ready to give up the teabags, there are refillable cotton bags out there, too.

Finally, if you’re a herbal tea drinker, ditch the dried stuff altogether and use fresh leaves. Mint is one of the easiest herbs to grow and there’s nothing like a cup of fresh mint tea.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Did you know that most teabags contain plastic? If you did know, have you made the switch? Have you found a brand of plastic-free tea? Have you given up the teabags and embraced the loose leaf? Have you found a different solution? Please share in the comments below!

Biodegradable Plastic: Is It REALLY Eco-Friendly?

If there’s one environmental claim that makes me nervous when I see it printed on plastic-like products and packaging, it’s “biodegradable”. Why? Because without context, this label is vague and potentially misleading.

A one-word label like this tells us nothing about the true biodegradability of a product. What does it biodegrade into? Toxic or non-toxic? How long does the process actually take?

Yet companies plaster it on their products in an effort to make us believe they are more eco-friendly. As customers, we gravitate towards these products, as we want to make better choices.

Of course, some companies are diligent and can back up their biodegradability claims with real evidence. But others are not.

For the average shopper, it’s hard to pick out the good claims from the bad ones.

This post will help make some sense of it all.

What Does “Biodegradable” Mean?

Biodegradation is a chemical process in which materials are metabolised into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass by microorganisms. Depending on the material, toxic residues may remain.

The process of biodegradation is influenced by a number of conditions, including temperature, humidity, oxygen levels, presence of bacteria and time.

But what does “biodegradable” mean when it’s printed on packaging, or on the label of a product?

There is actually no single common understanding or definition of “biodegradable”, so different companies will mean different things when they use this label. That makes it pretty confusing for us.

We might assume that if a product is labelled “biodegradable”, it will be non-toxic, it will break down in home compost bins, and / or it will break down quickly.

But this isn’t necessarily the case.

The good news is, if a product is truly biodegradable, the company should be able to provide details supporting this claim.

And by details, I mean scientific evidence. Not anecdotal claims by the company CEO that they put it in their home compost bin and it “disappeared”.

Real data, based on actual laboratory tests.

Biodegradable Standards: What They Are and What They Mean

Because there are no defined understanding around what “biodegradability” means, certification schemes have been developed based on scientific standards and testing.

Certification is a way for companies to back up the claims they make about the biodegradability of their packaging and/or their products with scientific data.

Whilst voluntary, these schemes are attractive to companies wanting to demonstrate environmental responsibility and safety of their products.

As consumers, knowing that the packaging / product is certified gives us piece of mind, and helps us make better purchasing decisions.

These are the standards to look out for.

Standards for Biodegradable Plastics:

There are a number of different standards for biodegradable plastics, with different certification schemes established by different certification bodies. There is currently no standard with a clear pass/fail criteria for the degradation of plastics in sea water.

Standards for home composting:

These standards are awarded to products that will break down in home composting systems.

Look out for these numbers stated on the product or packaging:

Australian AS 5810 “Biodegradable plastics – biodegradable plastics suitable for home composting”.

Belgian certifier Vinçotte had developed the “OK compost” home certification scheme, requiring at least 90% degradation in 12 months at ambient temperature.

Labels proving home compostability are Vinçotte’s OK Compost Home, the DIN-Geprüft Home Compostable Mark and the Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA) Home Compostable logo.

Standards for industrial composting and anaerobic digestion:

These standards apply to products that will break down in industrial composting facilities or anaerobic digesters within a stated timeframe. (This is not the same as home composting, and these products may not break down in home compost bins.)

Look out for these numbers stated on the product or packaging:

European Standards EN 13432 / 14995 (13432 applies to packaging only, 14995 applies to plastics generally);

The Australian standard AS 4736 which additionally includes an earthworm test;

ASTM D6400 is the US standard with clear pass/fail criteria;

Japan has no accepted standard, but certification scheme GreenPla is widely used.

Labels proving compostability in industrial facilities are the ABA Compostable Seedling logo, the Vinçotte OK Compost logo, the DIN-Geprüft Industrial Compostable Mark, and the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) Compostable logo.

The catch with these products is that not everybody has access to industrial composting facilities. Even when they do, the timeframes required to break down these products (typically 90 days) are often much longer than the timeframes these facilities use per composting cycle. In short, these products may not biodegrade at these facilities and some facilities will not accept them.

Biodegradable Products Aren’t Perfect

Even where a product is certified as biodegradable, that doesn’t mean it is 100% biodegradable.

For example, for a product to comply with EN 13432 / EN 14995 standards, at least 90% of the organic material must convert into CO2 within 6 months in controlled composting conditions; and after 3 months’ composting and subsequent sifting through a 2mm sieve, no more than 10% residue may remain (as compared to the original mass).

The Japanese certification scheme GreenPla specifies the minimum level as only 60%.

“Biodegradable” doesn’t mean there are no heavy metals or toxic chemicals present. Each certification standard has its own permitted levels of metals including copper, nickel, cadmium, lead, mercury, chromium and arsenic: US standard ASTM D6400 has the highest permitted levels.

And if there’s no commercial composting facility in your area, it will likely end up in the bin.

Where possible, it’s always better to avoid packaging altogether.

Is “Biodegradable” Labeling Regulated by Law?

With no mandatory standards on biodegradability: however, there are guidelines about how the term “biodegradable” (and other environmental labels) can be represented so that they do not mislead consumers.

In Australia, the Trade Practices Act (1974) requires businesses to provide consumers with accurate information about goods and services. Businesses that make claims such as biodegradable on their packaging must ensure these claims can be substantiated. It’s the law.

Being able to substantiate claims is particularly important if the claim predict future outcomes, such as whether plastics will biodegrade or within a certain timeframe and under certain conditions.

Claims about biodegradability must:

  • Be honest and truthful;
  • Detail the specific part of the product or process referred to by the claim;
  • Use language the average member of the public can understand;
  • Explain the significance of the benefit but not overstate it;
  • Be able to be substantiated.

In Australia, the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) has taken action against a number of companies making misleading claims about biodegradability, including supermarket chain Woolworths.

Biodegradable Plastics: A Summary

Companies make unsubstantiated claims about biodegradable products all the time, sometimes deliberately but sometimes because they have a limited understanding of what it really means. Certification schemes are one way for us as consumers to pick out the good guys from the shady ones.

A product saying it’s “biodegradable” should specify what percentage the biodegradable content is, how long it take to break down, what it will break down into, and what conditions it needs to do so. (That’s what the certification labels are telling us.)

Look for products labelled “Home Compostable” first.

Bear in mind that even products that can be composted industrially may still end up in landfills, and  biodegradable plastics do not break down in the marine environment. A plastic bag will still look like a jellyfish to a sea turtle, whether it’s certified biodegradable or not – and biodegradable does not mean digestible.

If biodegradable packaging ends up as litter, it can be just as destructive and harmful as conventional packaging.

Certified biodegradable plastics are better than non-biodegradable ones, but they are not the perfect solution. Refusing, reducing and reusing are always better options, where we can.