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Is there anything better than a nice cup of tea? Even the very word itself is soothing and comforting – like a hug when you need one most. A steaming hot mug of tea is the first thing I reach for in the morning, and quite often a herbal tea is one of the things I reach for last thing at night. I measure my days based on my tea consumption – a good day if I’ve had plenty cups, and a bad day if tea has been in scarce supply. In short, there are few things I love more than tea.
What if your beloved cup of tea is hiding a dark secret? Well, I’m afraid to be the harbinger of doom, but much like the animal fat in £5 notes scandal, there is a bad side to your benign cup of tea, and that is plastic. Not just the plastic wrapper on the box, or the plastic pouch some teas come in, but plastic actually in the teabag itself.
Let that sink in a moment – there is plastic in the teabag.
You might be wondering why there is a need for plastic to be found in teabags? Well, plastic (polypropylene to be exact) is apparently added to the paper teabag to help heat seal them during manufacture so they don’t come open in the box, or in your cup. It also means though that these tea bags aren’t 100% biodegradable, which is a bit of problem in that those tea bags you are composting are leaving bits of microplastic in the soil.
As a lot of the information stems from 2010, I wanted to get an up-to-date overview of the tea industry in 2018. I donned my investigative cap and emailed a few of the main tea makers to see if they could confirm whether they still use polypropylene in their teabags and to see which tea bags are plastic free. Here’s what they said:
To be helpful, here is a visual guide to the types of teabags referred to by the manufacturers:
Information correct as of 2nd April 2018:
Teapigs got back to me first (within minutes) to let me know that all of their teabags do not contain polypropylene. Instead, their teabags are made from a by-product of corn starch known as Soilon.
Soilon is a bioplastic, which means these types of teabags are not suitable for composting at home – they require high temperatures to be able to compost – so should only be placed in your food waste bin provided by your local council. They will not biodegrade in a home compost system or in landfill so it’s important to be mindful in how you dispose of them.
There are a few issues with bioplastics made from corn – this article is a good starting point, but the main point is that they are often made from GM crops.
Packaging wise, the clear inner bag used to be polypropylene, however, Teapigs say their teas are now packed in Natureflex, a completely compostable material made from wood pulp, which can be composted at home or in your local council food waste bin.
Taylors of Harrogate (who also make Yorkshire Tea and Betty’s Tea) say that “we can confirm that we are working with our supplier of teabag paper to develop a paper that is 100% plant-based, but right now our tea bags do contain polypropylene as part of the fibres“.
Twinings have several different types of teabags available on the market. They say that “our standard teabags, used for Earl Grey and English Breakfast, to name a couple, and many of our infusions and Green teas are produced from a natural plant-based cellulose material and contain no plastic in the fibres. However, these teabags are “heat sealed” tea bags, and so the paper also has a very thin film of polypropylene, a plastic, which enables the two layers of the tea bags to be sealed together“.
Meanwhile their ‘string and tag with sachet’ tea bags, also contain a thin layer of plastic polyethylene to help seal up the sachets. The only Twinings product that doesn’t contain any plastic is their pyramid teabag range – whereby the material is derived from maize starch and is fully biodegradable and compostable (via your local council food waste bin, rather than at home). Rather annoyingly though, many of their pyramid tea bags seem to come in plastic bags rather than boxes.
Pukka Tea told me their teabags do not contain polypropylene or any other plastic – their teabag is sewn shut by machine with cotton thread. They even went on to say their teabag paper is made of a blend of natural abaca (a type of banana) and plant cellulose fibres, and their supply of tea bag paper is also Totally Chlorine Free and unbleached. They are staple-free and 100% biodegradable and/or recyclable. The tea bag strings are made from 100% organic, non-GMO, unbleached cotton. Each tea bag is individually packaged in a plastic sachet though, so the one downside is that there is a bit of plastic waste from one box of tea.
PG Tips pyramid tea bags are now made from a plant-based material that is 100% renewable and biodegradable. Again, like Teapigs, this bag is a bioplastic produced from corn.
Again, these should be placed in your local council food waste bin rather than your home composter or in your landfill bin.
I haven’t had a chance to check out the pyramid teabags yet, but any teabags I have had from PG Tips in the past tend to be wrapped in plastic, so I would be interested to learn if the box is wrapped in plastic.
The Unilever-owned company also says it is working to make all its teabags from 100% plant-based material by the end of the year. They told me via email in June 2017 that their current standard teabags “are made with 80% paper fibre which is fully compostable along with the tea leaves contained in the bag. The remaining packaging includes a small amount of plastic which is not fully biodegradable: this is needed to create a seal to keep the tea leaves inside the bag“.
Tetley say their round and square teabags are made with 80% paper fibre, and 20% thermoplastic. Their string & tag teabags are plastic free- but are used mostly in their catering range for individually wrapped tea bags.
They have said that “Tata Global Beverages has ongoing continuous improvement and environmental awareness. We are working towards more sustainable and biodegradable solutions for all our products”. They also advised that ripping the bag and dispersing the contents should help the composting process, but it’s important to note this won’t help with the microplastics problems.
In March 2018 Tetley pledged to switch to a “100 percent biodegradable”, replacement, which they say will be available in stores in the near future.
Clipper confirmed via Twitter that they do use plastic in their teabags, even in their unbleached organic tea bags, saying that “Currently, the filter paper in our pillow tea bags does contain polypropylene to provide the heat-seal function“. Their FAQ stated in June 2017 that “Square “pillow” bags do have a very thin layer of polypropylene plastic to enable the bags to be sealed, but in your compost bin this will break down into teeny tiny pieces”, which they have since updated.
In January 2018 Clipper updated their position, saying “We have been working together with our packaging providers to find a better alternative to polypropylene in tea bags. We have already completed one production trial to test an alternative solution and have another planned in February . Being plastic-free is very important to us as a brand and we are working hard to ensure we can do this as soon as possible whilst also maintaining the high quality of our tea“, so we can hope to see plastic free Clipper tea shortly.
Clipper previously reported that their string and tag teabags were plastic-free, but as of April 2018 have reported that these teabags also contain plastic.
Typhoo have so far declined to comment. I’ll update as and when they do. (April 2018 edit – 10 months on they still haven’t commented).
The Co-Op has stated that their “own brand tea bags, along with most in the UK, contain a very small amount of plastic binder to hold them together. This does not melt in boiling water. WRAP, the government’s official anti-waste advisory group, advises to put used teabags in food waste collections or in home composting, however, we are working with our suppliers to find a way to replace the plastic binder completely“.
In January 2018 the Co-op announced it is to make its own-brand Fairtrade 99 teabags free of polypropylene, and the tea bags are due to go on sale by the end of 2018.
Aldi has confirmed that their tea bags “contain a minimum quantity of ‘food safe”’resin” (plastic).
Plastic-Free Tea Bags
To summarise, as of April 2018 the following teabags are polyproplyene free:
- Teapigs (bioplastic)
- Pukka Tea
- Twinings Pyramid tea bags
- PG Tips pyramid teabags (bioplastic)
- Tetley’s catering range
It is worth bearing in mind that in most of these cases the packaging is not plastic-free, with the exception of Teapigs.
The following teabags are NOT plastic-free:
- Taylors of Harrogate
- Yorkshire Tea
- Betty’s Tea
The following teabags are expected to be plastic-free later on in 2018 but currently are not:
- Clipper teabags
- PG Tips standard teabags
- Tetley teabags
- Co-Op 99 teabags
What Can You Do?
Email or tweet the tea companies to ask them if they have stopped using plastic in their teabags, and if not, when are they going to stop. If enough people do this the companies will take notice.
Here are the email addresses and Twitter handles of the companies in question:
There are also some online petitions you can sign. This one asking the UK Government to ban all teabags containing plastic is a good starting point.
If your preferred brand of tea isn’t on this list then why not email or tweet them to find out where they stand on plastic in tea bags – you can let me know the responses in the comments below.
Until things change, or if you’re not keen on the idea of bioplastics, then if you are keen to enjoy your tea without the added plastic the other option is to switch to loose leaf tea. I’ve been hunting down some handy accessories that might come in handy if you choose to do so:
Plastic Free Tea Alternatives
Tea Ball Infuser (£3.25)
A pretty fairtrade mug (£9.95)
A cheery teapot (£24.95) with infuser basket so no need for additional tools or tea leaves floating in your tea.
What’s your favourite loose leaf tea? Is there a 100% plastic free loose leaf tea? I’ve found some sold in a paper bag but it does have a sticky label on it which I suspect isn’t plastic free. I’d be keen to hear your finds!
ps: Found this post useful? You might want to check out my guide to glitter – also a microplastic.