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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!

Plastic Free Tea: Let’s Start a Campaign!

My discovery during Plastic Free July that teabags contain plastic made me mad. It made me really mad. Why, I wondered, when I generally drink loose leaf tea anyway? I came up with two reasons. (Well, three reasons. ‘Generally’ means I do drink tea made from teabags occasionally.) Firstly, the information I read stated that all teabag producers use plastic in their teabags…except one. That is the key. If one company can make plastic-free teabags, then it’s obviously possible – so why don’t the others? The second reason was that the Sustainability Officer for Teadirect (the Sustainability Officer, no less!), was quoted as saying this: “Most consumers don’t notice [the polypropylene] and probably don’t care.” Don’t notice?! Don’t care?! I think what’s more relevant is that consumers probably don’t know. What’s more, I care, and I know plenty of other people who also care…including Plastic is Rubbish and WestyWrites who have also been raising awareness, contacting tea companies to find out what their teabags are made of, and complaining about this use of plastic! Whether we’re in the minority or not, we still exist! So we’ve decided to do something about it, and we’d love you to join us!

The Campaign for Plastic-Free Tea

Taking that quote that made me so cross, and turning it round, I want all these tea companies to know that actually, people DO notice, and what’s more, they care, too.

teabagjpg

I’d love you all to tell these companies that you don’t like plastic in your teabags, and you want them to change. I want to make it as easy as possible for you, so I’ve done the legwork and got all the contact details I could find for some of the more popular teabag companies. If you have another you’d like me to add, please let me know in the comments and I’ll add them to this list!

Even if a company doesn’t sell products in your part of the world, don’t feel like you just have to stick to your little corner! Complain away!

Your Mission…Should You Choose to Accept it…

Choose how you prefer to contact each company. I’ve listed email addresses, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, if they have them. Use the hashtag #plasticfreetea on social media so we can find your comments!

Clipper Tea

Clipper tea use plastic in their square bags, but not in the individual string bags, as found out by The Snail of Happiness who wrote a letter and received this response:

“We can confirm that certain types of tea bags do contain polymer fibres. Standard square or round tea bags which are the most common in the UK market will all contain a type of polymer fibre as they are made using heat-sealable filter paper. The tea bag filter paper requires a means of sealing the two layers of paper together as paper will not stick to paper and glue is not used. The filter paper Clipper uses for this type of tea bag contains polypropylene to provide the heat-seal function. The filter paper is food grade for its intended purpose and meets all relevant UK and EU Regulations.
The filter paper used to produce tea bags with the string and tag attached does not need to be heat-sealable, as it is closed differently, and therefore does not contain any polymer fibres/plastic content.

Contact Clipper and tell them we don’t want plastic in our teabags!

By email: help@clipper-teas.com

Twitter: @ClipperTeas

Clipper Teas on Facebook

Yorkshire Tea

Yorkshire Tea informed @Westywrites via Twitter that:

“There’s an incredibly fine plastic mesh woven into the teabag for strength and structure.”

Contact Yorkshire Tea: contact form via their website

Twitter: @YorkshireTea

Yorkshire Tea on Facebook

PG Tips:

PG Tips informed Westywrites via phone that:

“There is a small amount of plastic in the tea bags to hold the bag together.”

Contact PG Tips: contact form via their website

Twitter: UK @PGtips or USA @PGTipsUSA

PG Tips on Facebook

Nerada:

Twothirdswild contacted Nerada about potential plastic in their teabags, and was told:

“There are cellulose and thermo-plastic fibres in the bags which are necessary to seal the product! Their bags are however, made from manila hemp, which has been oxygen whitened, not treated with chlorine or chlorine based compounds.”

Contact Nerada: contact form via their website

Nerada on Facebook

Twinings Tea

The information I read from 2010 stated Twinings use plastic in their teabags, but I’m yet to discover if it’s still the case. Chances are, it is.

Twinings operate in 100 countries. Find your local contact information here.

Contact Twinings UK: contact form via their website.

Twitter: @TwiningsTeaUK @TwiningsAU

Twinings UK on Facebook and Twinings Australia on Facebook

Tea-Drinking Not Your Thing?

You don’t have to be a tea-drinker to join in, just a plastic-hater! Most of us have accepted that to drink tea and avoid plastic we’ll have to switch to loose leaf tea, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still be letting companies know our disappointment – if they don’t know, they won’t have any reason to change.

We can all do our bit to reduce our plastic waste through our consumption, but we can also take things to the next level and speak out about plastic in our products. Maybe teabags didn’t make you mad – but I bet something else did! If you kept a dilemma bag during Plastic-Free July, have a look and see what companies produced these products – and send them a message. I’ll be joining the Plastic Free July team on Thursday night for the Plastic Free July finale, and as well as a celebration there’s gonna be a letter-writing frenzy as we all contact these companies and tell them what we think!

Have you complained to any companies about plastic in their products? What was their response? If you haven’t already – it’s not too late to join in! Please make sure you share who you wrote to and how they replied. Any other thoughts? Leave a comment below!

The humble teabag: maybe not so innocent?

I’ve always used teabags. I like their convenience. That’s the thing, though. Convenience is a word that I’ve come to be suspicious of. After all, convenience is what created the plastic pollution problem that we have today. In particular, convenience foods and all its unnecessary plastic packaging. Like pre-peeled bananas on Styrofoam trays and cling wrapped with more plastic to save us all the ‘hassle’ of peeling them. (Think I’m joking?! Check out the Time magazine article about it here.)

I was very pleased when I found out that Twining teabags do not come in a cellophane wrapped box, nor do they come with that plastic-disguised-as-foil inner packaging inside the box. Most other brands have one (or both) of these. Even those ‘silk’ teabags are actually made of plastic. But Twinings offer me plastic-free teabags, hurrah!

I’d been using these plastic free teabags for a while, and I noticed that the thread is held together by a tiny metal staple. Have you ever noticed that? My box of 100 teabags has 100 staples. How are they stapled together? Is there a person sitting in a dark room somewhere stapling teabags together? Has someone invented a machine that can staple the stringy bit to the tea bag with no physical labour required?

Let’s think about this. Metal comes out of the ground. It’s mined. It’s then got to be made into a staple. It’s got to be transported to the teabag factory. Then, somehow, it’s got to be attached to the teabag along with the stringy bit. And all of this occurs to save me the inconvenience of having to remove the teabag from my cup with a spoon. Is that not a tiny bit ridiculous?

Before you point out that other teabag brands do not have staples, or even strings, whilst I know that’s true, I am yet to find any that don’t have plastic cellophane packaging, or plastic ‘foil’ wrapping, or some other unnecessary packaging.

There’s a simple solution of course. Switch to loose leaf tea.

 

teajpgOver the last few months I’ve slowly been using up my teabag stash, and replacing them with loose leaf tea. The other great thing about this is that loose leaf tea tastes far better. There are a number of grades of tea and the lowest is called dust (or fannings) – it’s this stuff that usually ends up in teabags. If you buy loose leaf tea you’re buying a better quality product.

Switching from teabags to loose leaf tea may not save the planet, but it reduces packaging, prevents plastic-rage (when you get home to discover that the item you were so sure was plastic-free was hiding it all along), and makes a far better brew. What’s not to love?