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.
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.)
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.
And beware – a few companies crimp their teabags into this shape and attach the string. The crimping is the tell-tale sign that this bag contains plastic. The string is usually stuck on, rather than sewn in.
The string is usually made from cotton. If you do 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?
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!