Firstly, what’s nicer than a good cup of tea? Even the word itself is calming and comforting—like a hug when you most need one. A steaming hot tea mug is the very first thing I have in the morning, and most often a herbal tea is one of the last things I do at night. Based on my tea intake, I calculate my days – a good day if I had plenty of cups, and a poor day if the tea was in scarce supply. In short, I enjoy nothing more than tea.
What if your precious teacup holds a dark secret? Ok, I’m afraid I’m the horrible monster, just like the animal fat in the £5 scandal, your innocuous cup of tea has a bad side, and that’s plastic. Not only the plastic wrapping on the package or the plastic bag some teas come in but plastic in the teabag itself.
Let that sink in a moment—the tea bag contains plastic.
Maybe you’re wondering why plastic is needed in teabags? Ok, plastic (to be specific, polypropylene) is applied to the paper teabag to help heat seal them throughout manufacturing so they don’t get open in the box or cup. It also means, however, that these tea bags aren’t 100% biodegradable, which is a bit of a concern as the tea bags you compost leave bits of microplastic in the soil.
As much information comes from 2010, I decided to get an up-to-date tea industry overview in 2018. I placed my investigating cap and contacted some of the major tea makers to see if they could confirm that they still use polypropylene in their tea bags to see which tea bags are plastic-free. Here’s what they say:
Teapigs first came back (within mins) to let me know that all their tea bags do not contain polypropylene. Instead, their tea bags are made of corn starch by-products known as Soilon.
Soilon is a bioplastic, which ensures that these types of teabags are not ideal for recycling at home – they need extreme temps to compost – so your local authority can just put them in your food waste bin. They won’t biodegrade in a home compost system or landfill, so it’s important to be aware of how you treat them.
Bioplastics made from corn – this article is a decent starting point, but the key point is that they are also made from GM crops.
Packaging wise, the transparent inner bag used to be polypropylene, but Teapigs say their teas are now wrapped in Natureflex, a fully compostable wood pulp material that can be composted at home or in your local food waste bin.
Taylors of Harrogate (who also make Yorkshire Tea and Betty’s Tea) say, “We can confirm that we are working with our teabag paper supplier to develop a 100% plant-based paper, but right now our tea bags comprise polypropylene as one of the fibers.”
Twinings have many unique tea bags on the market. They claim “our regular tea bags, used for Earl Grey and English Breakfast, to name a few, and many of our infusions and organic teas are made from natural plant-based cellulose material and do not include plastic in the fibres. But these teabags are “heat-sealed” tea bags, and therefore paper often does have a very thin polypropylene layer, a plastic that allows the two layers of tea bags to be enclosed together.“
Besides that, their ‘string and sachet’ teabags comprise a thin layer of plastic polyethylene to seal the tea bags. Just one Twinings item that contains no plastic is its pyramid tea bag collection, in which the material is extracted from maize starch and is entirely eco-friendly. However, most of their pyramid tea bags seem to arrive in plastic bags instead of tubes.
PG Tips pyramid teabags also are made of 100% recycled, biodegradable plant-based material. Again like Teapigs, this bag is maize-produced bioplastic.
Again not your home composter or landfill bin, these should be put in your nearest food waste bin.
I haven’t even had a chance to try out the pyramid tea bags though, but any tea bags I’ve had from PG Tips in the old days appear to be wrapped in plastic, so I’d like to know if the packet is wrapped in plastic.
The Unilever-owned company also says it works by the end of the year to produce all its teabags from 100% plant-based products. They informed me via email in June 2017 that their standard model tea bags are made with 80% paper fiber that is completely compostable along with the tea leaves in the bag. The leftover packaging contains a small amount of plastic, which is not completely biodegradable: it is important to create a seal to hold the tea leaves within the container.“
Clipper reported via Twitter that they use plastic in their teabags, including in their unbleached organic tea bags, saying “Today, the filter paper in our pillow tea bags contains polypropylene for heat-sealing function.” Their FAQ reported in June 2017 that “Square “pillow” bags have a very thin layer of polypropylene plastic to allow the bags to be locked, but this will break down into tiny pieces in your compost bin, which they have modified since.
Clipper revised their stance in January 2018, saying, “We partnered with our packaging suppliers to find a suitable solution to polypropylene in tea bags. We have achieved one production trial to assess an alternative solution, and scheduled another in February . Getting plastic-free is very important to us as a brand and we are working hard to make sure that we can do this as quickly as possible while still preserving our tea’s high quality,” so we can expect to see plastic-free Clipper tea soon.
What should you do?
Message or tweet the tea producers to ask if they’ve stopped using plastic in their teabags, and if not when they’ll be. If too many people do this, businesses will notice.
You may also sign online petitions
And, If your favorite tea brand isn’t on this list then why not contact or tweet them to figure out where their teabags stand on plastic – you can let me know the answers in the comments below.