Believe it or not, there is a high probability that there is plastic in our humble teabags. Plastic seems to be everywhere, so having a plastic free life is certainly a challenge. It is important to realise that plastic might lurk in many unlikely places.
Why is there plastic in teabags?
There are plastic fibres in many teabags to help the bags retain their shape. This prevents them from breaking apart in hot water. The plastic also helps to seal the tea bags, keeping the tea fresh and preventing flavours from escaping.
A study conducted by researchers at McGill University in Canada in 2019 found that some plastic tea bags can release billions of microplastics and nanoparticles into a single cup of tea when steeped at 95°C (203°F). This is a typical temperature for brewing tea. The study analyzed four different commercial tea bags made from nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET). They found that steeping a single tea bag released 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics into the water.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, officially defined as any piece of plastic less than 5mm in size. Primary microplastics are up to 5mm in size when manufactured.
Secondary microplastics (nano plastics) are small pieces made from larger items degrading in the environment. They are equal to or less than 100mm, so unable to be seen by the naked eye, or even an ordinary microscope. Research has found them turning in seafood, salt, tap water and even in our bodies.
The potential health effects of ingesting microplastics in teabags are not yet fully understood. More research is needed to determine the long-term effects of microplastic consumption on human health.
Ingesting microplastics may cause physical harm to the body, as they may accumulate in the digestive tract and potentially cause inflammation, blockages, or other gastrointestinal issues.
The amount of microplastic released into the environment from teabags is not well-documented. It may vary depending on several factors, such as the type of teabag, brewing time, and water temperature.
While plastic teabags do contribute to plastic waste, they only make up a small fraction of the plastic waste generated worldwide. Other common sources of plastic waste include packaging, single-use plastic items, and plastic bottles.
Read more about plastic pollution
Teabags can have negative impacts on the environment:
- Waste: Most teabags are made from a combination of paper, plastic, and other materials, which makes them difficult to recycle. As a result, many teabags end up in landfills, where they can take years to decompose.
- Plastic pollution: Many teabags contain plastic components, such as nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which can break down into microplastics that pollute the environment and harm wildlife.
- Resource depletion: The production of paper and other materials used in teabags contributes to deforestation, water depletion, and other environmental impacts.
- Chemical pollution: Some teabags may contain chemicals such as chlorine or epichlorohydrin, which can leach into the tea and potentially harm human health and the environment.
How can you tell if there is plastic in your teabag?
Do the tear test. Does it rip easily or is it hard to tear? This isn’t a guarantee that there are no microplastics if it tears easily, but teabags with a high plastic content are more difficult to tear than paper.
Do the flame test. (And be careful!) Does the teabag burn like paper or does it melt? Does it smell like burned paper or does it smell like burned plastic? This isn’t a guarantee that your teabag is plastic-free if it burns and smells like paper. There may be small amounts of plastic present in the bag, including the edges of heat-sealed bags.
Is your teabag one of those “silk sachets” or pyramids? If so, it’s not silk, it’s food-grade nylon, which is plastic.
Does the paper-looking teabag have a string attached with a staple? That’s a sign that it is paper. If the string is attached without a staple or an obvious stitch, it is possible that it’s sealed by heat, and that means plastic.
Is the teabag shaped like a pouch? Pouches are either square or round. Pouch-style teabags without strings are heat-sealed, and contain plastic.
Not all teabags contain plastic, and some companies are now offering plastic-free teabags made from alternative materials such as paper or biodegradable plant-based fibers.
Is organic tea better?
You may opt to use teabags with organic tea to be healthier. Not all teabags of organic tea are plastic-free. It’s important to read the label or contact the manufacturer to confirm the materials used in the teabags, as some tea bags labeled as “organic” or “natural” may still contain plastic components such as nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
How to source plastic free teabags
If you are looking for plastic-free teabags, you may want to look for tea brands that explicitly state that their teabags are plastic-free or biodegradable. It’s always a good idea to check the label or website to confirm that the tea bags are indeed plastic-free. Many brands now offer plastic-free options or are transitioning to plastic-free packaging. Some tea brands also offer loose leaf tea as an alternative to tea bags.
If you are concerned about the environmental impact of tea bags, it is worth noting that even biodegradable tea bags may not break down completely in a home composting system, due to the heat and humidity required for proper composting. In this case, it may be best to remove the tea from the bag before composting or opt for loose leaf tea instead.
There are some tea brands in Australia that offer plastic-free tea bags
- T2 Tea – T2 Tea offers a range of plastic-free tea bags made from unbleached paper and cotton.
- The Tea Collective – The Tea Collective uses tea bags made from 100% biodegradable, unbleached cotton.
- Ovvio Organics – Ovvio Organics offers plastic-free tea bags made from unbleached cotton.
- Tea Tonic – Tea Tonic uses tea bags made from unbleached, biodegradable paper.
- Love Tea – Love Tea offers plastic-free tea bags made from unbleached, compostable paper.
These are just a few examples, and there are likely many more brands in Australia that offer plastic-free tea bags.
Sustainable packaging is also important
Even plastic-free teabags may come in packaging that contains plastic. It’s a good idea to do your research and choose brands that prioritize sustainability throughout their supply chain.
Choosing tea bags made from biodegradable or compostable materials, using loose-leaf tea, and reducing overall plastic consumption can all be effective ways to minimize the environmental impact of teabags. Additionally, purchasing tea from companies that prioritize sustainability and ethical sourcing can also help to support more environmentally responsible practices.
Loose-leaf tea is always a plastic-free option.
There are many benefits of drinking loose leaf tea, including:
- Higher quality: Loose leaf teas are often of higher quality than tea bags because they contain larger, more intact tea leaves, rather than the smaller, broken pieces found in tea bags.
- More flavour: the leaves in loose leaf tea are larger and less processed. They tend to have a more complex and nuanced flavor profile compared to tea bags.
- Loose leaf tea has been shown to have numerous health benefits due to its high antioxidant content. Antioxidants can help prevent cell damage and lower the risk of chronic diseases.
- Loose leaf tea is more eco-friendly than tea bags because it generates less waste. Tea bags are often made with materials that are not biodegradable and can take years to decompose.
- Cost-effective: While the initial cost of loose leaf tea may be higher than that of tea bags, loose leaf tea can be steeped multiple times, making it a more cost-effective option in the long run.