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plastic

Food & Drink, Kitchen Staples

The Teabags Without Plastic in 2021

Wanting to know which teabags without plastic exist in the UK in 2021? I’ve rounded up the best plastic-free teabags and shared the teabags with plastic.

Back in 2017, I wrote about the plastic in teabags. That post had such an impact as many people learned for the first time that teabags contain plastic, alongside a host of other surprising items that contain plastic

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had a lot of requests to update the article, so here we are today! I’ve looked into over 20 teabag brands in the UK, to see what teabags without plastic are available. I’ve also looked into how best to dispose of the bags once you’re done.

Why do teabags contain plastic?

You might be wondering why there is a need for plastic to be found in teabags?  Well, plastic (polypropylene to be exact) is added to the paper teabag to help heat seal them during manufacture. 

Heat sealing the bags like this means that the teabags won’t come open in the box, or in your cup.  It also means though that these tea bags aren’t 100% biodegradable.  This is a problem in that those tea bags you are composting are leaving bits of microplastic in the soil.

What Is Microplastic?

Microplastic is a huge problem, that is still being understood by scientists today. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, less than 5 mm long. What we know is that microplastics are found in the soil, in the sea, in our drinking water, inside fish and other animals we eat, and even in humans. When microplastics are in the food we eat and that water we drink, this means we are ingesting plastic, and the long-term effects of this are currently unknown.

Microplastic come from a variety of sources. It can derive from larger plastic debris that has degraded into smaller and smaller pieces. However, it also comes from teabags that have been heat-sealed with plastic, that we have unwittingly composted.

How much damage can a teabag do, you may be wondering? Well, one teabag alone will do very little damage. However, when you consider that in the UK alone we drink more than 60 billion cups of tea a year, then it’s a lot of teabags, and a whole lot more microplastic.

The good news is that since 2017 tea manufacturers have started to remove polypropylene from their teabags. Here is the current situation in the UK:

The Plastic Free Teabags in 2021

teabags without plastic uk

Here are the UK brands that produce plastic-free teabags. In each case, I’m discussing the bags only, not the packaging.

Before we dive in, let me get you up to speed on some of the terminology around teabags.

First off, you’ll see some discussion around types of teabags. Here is a visual guide to the types of teabags referred to in this guide.

types of teabags

In this guide to teabags without plastic, you’ll see a lot a discussion around PLA. PLA stands for Polylactic Acid. PLA teabags are technically not plastic-free, as they are made from plant-based plastics. It is often referred to as a bio-plastic. This simply means the plastic does not come from a fossil fuel-based source.

There are some issues around PLA. Firstly, sometimes the plant material used to produce PLA can be sourced from genetically modified (GM) crops.

Secondly, PLA tea bags are not home compostable. It’s therefore important to dispose of them correctly. If your local council collects your food waste or garden waste bin for industrial composting, they will compost quickly. However, if your council does not collect your food waste, then these teabags perform no differently than conventional oil-based plastic tea bags.

I don’t think PLA is a perfect solution. Like many aspects of sustainability, there are always compromises. However, aside from switching to loose leaf tea en masse, I don’t think there is a perfect solution that could also make tea an affordable daily staple.

Right, now we’re up to speed on all things tea, let’s dive in:

Bird & Blend Tea

Place in your food waste bin | Loose leaf tea selection

Brighton based Bird & Blend sell their hand-blended teas in PLA teabags. Or if you want to avoid PLA you can shop for loose leaf tea. Alongside their standard black teas, where Bird & Blend excel is in their unique tea blends. Think Rhubarb & Custard, or Chocolate Digestive flavoured tea for something a little different.

Brew Tea

Place in your food waste bin | Loose leaf tea selection

As well as their loose leaf tea selection, Brew Tea swapped over to PLA teabags in September 2017. They then started moving over to plastic-free packaging in 2018. Black tea is Brew Tea’s speciality, but they do carry a small range of fruit and herbal teas.

Clipper

Place in your food waste bin | String and tag teabags home compostable

Back in 2017 people were most shocked by the fact that Clipper’s unbleached organic teabags contained plastic. Thanks to consumer demand, Clipper took action, and switched their pillow teabags to a plant-based PLA over a year ago, sourced from non-GM plant material.  

Co-Op Own Brand 99

Place in your food waste bin

Thanks to consumer pressure, The Co-Op switched it’s own brand Fairtrade 99 tea over to PLA teabags in 2018.

Eteaket

Place in your food waste bin | loose leaf tea selection

Edinburgh based Eteaket mainly sells loose-leaf tea. This is packaged in home compostable Natureflex™ bags and cardboard caddies. Their tea is not the cheapest. However, if you already have a caddy, then their loose-leaf tea is also available in 100% plastic-free refill bags, which are a little cheaper.

Whilst their range of teabags is small, their tea bags are made from PLA. These are packed into home compostable Natureflex™ bags, and recyclable cardboard cartons for a lighter carbon footprint.

Good & Proper

Place in your food waste bin |Loose leaf tea selection

Good & Proper’s range of award-winning teas – from their black teas to their range of herbal infusions – come in PLA teabags. If you want to avoid PLA, you can also shop their wide range of tasty loose leaf teas.

Hampstead Tea

Home compostable or can go in your food waste bin | Loose leaf tea selection

Hampstead Tea has a long history of sustainability. They were the first tea manufacturer to introduce stitched teabags rather than heat-sealed teabags. As such, their teabags have always been home compostable. Rather than resting on their laurels, Hampstead Tea has taken big steps when it comes to the environment. Consequently, the vast majority of their products are plastic-free (aside from their Earl Grey and Green Tea with Jasmine tea bag envelopes).

Neal’s Yard

Home compostable or can go in your food waste bin

Neal’s Yard 100% organic tea bags are FairWild™ certified. This is an international standard that supports the sustainable use of wild-harvested ingredients. It also ensures a fair deal all along the supply chain.

Their PLA free teabags are made from natural abaca (a plant from the banana family) and are oxygen bleached. This method is chlorine-free and kind to the environment. As such these plastic-free teabags can go straight into your home composter.

Nemi

Place in your food waste bin |Loose leaf tea selection

Nemi is a specialist London-based tea company that offers a variety of tea blends, both as loose-tea and teabags. As well as selling great-tasting tea, they provide employment to refugees to give them local work experience and job readiness skills to enter the UK workforce and to help them integrate into broader society.

All of their teabags are made from PLA. What’s more, their packaging is compostable, and their teas are organic, fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance certified. Their packaging is pretty funky too.

PG Tips

Place in your food waste bin | Loose leaf tea selection

Unilever owned PG Tips made the switch to PLA a couple of years ago thanks to consumer pressure. Now their entire range can be industrially composted via your food waste bin.

Pukka

Home compostable or can go in your food waste bin

Unilever owned Pukka make organic and fairly-sourced herbal teas. Their string and tag teabags have always been plastic and PLA free. However, each individual bag used to come wrapped in an unrecyclable plastic-lined envelope. The good news is that Pukka have taken their enviromental responsibilities seriously, and now use widely recyclable envelopes.   

Roqberry

Place in your food waste bin

Roqberry’s flavourful fruit and herbal infusions come in PLA plastic based pyramids. From banana flavoured tea, through to blueberry, their unique tea blends tread lightly on the planet.

Suki Tea

Place in your food waste bin| Loose leaf tea selection

Based in Belfast, Suki Tea ethically source and blend loose leaf teas, herbal infusions and fruit blends from all over the world. They are best known for their tasty loose leaf tea, however they do have a selection of PLA based pyramid teabags.

T2

Place in your food waste bin | Loose leaf tea selection

Australian brand T2 reached the UK in 2014, and have quite a few High St stores dotted around the UK. Again, T2 are perhaps best known for their loose leaf tea selection. However, their range of pyramid teabags is made from PLA for a more sustainable cup of tea.

Teapigs

Place in your food waste bin

Sustainable tea stalwarts Teapigs have always made teabags without the fossil fuel based plastic – their tasty tea pyramids have always been PLA based. However Teapigs didn’t stop there. A few years ago they also switched the plastic inner bag to a home compostable bag. Top plastic-free marks!

Teatulia

Place in your food waste bin | Loose leaf tea selection

Teatulia, an organic tea brand from Bangladesh, are a new brand to me, but I like what I see.

All their tea is grown at the Teatulia garden in the north of Bangladesh. Here more than 3,500 mainly female employees grow tea and herbs according to low-intensity natural and organic farming methods. Staff are also paid good wages and provided with healthcare and education. 

Teatulia do have a wide selection of loose leaf teas, and their teabags are made of PLA.

Twist Teas

Place in your food waste bin | Loose leaf tea selection

Twist Tea’s range of fruit, herbal and black teas are available in loose leaf and PLA pyramid teabag formats.

Yorkshire Tea

Place in your food waste bin | Loose leaf tea selection

I’ve included Yorkshire Tea on this plastic-free list as they are currently rolling out their line of PLA teabags. They said in November that:

We’re replacing the oil-based plastic in our tea bags with a plant-based plastic called PLA, and about 1/5 of our UK Yorkshire Teabags have now switched. They’ve been in the shops since February so you may already have bought some! We were going to roll it out to more machines this year, but Covid-19 has brought big changes for factories. Keeping our staff distanced means keeping production simple, and the switch to PLA is anything but simple“.

Which Teabags Do Contain Plastic?

As of January 2021, many teabags from big name brands still contain plastic. These include the following brands.

Aldi

Aldi’s Specially Selected Infusion tea bags are made from PLA. However, the remainder of Aldi’s teabags are heat-sealed using polypropylene plastic. In 2018 Aldi said they were looking into plastic-free alternatives across the rest of its own brand tea range. Yet it appears they are still looking into this in 2021.

Lidl

Lidl’s pyramid teabags are made from PLA, making them industrially compostable. However, like Aldi, the rest of their range of teabags are sealed using polypropylene.

Marks & Spencer

In January 2021 Marks & Spencer told me over Twitter that “we changed our pyramid herbal teabags to a plant-based material at the end of 2019. These can be disposed of in food waste bins collected by local councils. We’re continuing to explore more sustainable options for our other tea bag ranges in the future”.

This non-committal action on plastic in the rest of their range of teabags is in contrast to an M&S press release issued in 2018. Here, Marks & Spencer said they were taking a “razor-sharp look at how we use plastics” and that “we’re taking plastics out of all 450 million teabags we sell“. It’s disappointing that three years later that ‘razor-sharp look‘ translates to a woolly ‘we’re continuing to explore… in the future‘.

As such, until their black tea is plastic-free I don’t class M&S as a plastic-free purveyor of tea.

Sainsbury’s

Sainsbury’s are on this list for now. The good news is that from June 2021 Sainsbury’s own-brand teabags will be plastic-free, as part of its ongoing commitment to halve plastic packaging by 2025. The new tea bags will be made from PLA, and will be industrially compostable.

Tetley

Currently, Tetley teabags are 99% plastic-free. Their goal is to remove the 1% of plastic completely and produce tea bags made from PLA.

Trials have been run, where 3 million PLA teabags were produced and sold, to see if bag splitting would be an issue. The results were positive, so Tetley is now looking to roll out their plastic-free bags. However, no date has been given for this yet. I’ll update this blog post as and when their range launches.

Twinings

I’ve put Twinings in the plastic category, rather than the plastic-free category, because I consider them a work in progress.

I tweeted Twinings to ask about the plastic in their tea and they told me “More than two-thirds of our products are loose-leaf or made using plant-based teabags & we’re working on switching the rest of our bags to a plant-based design. This will be completed in the next 6 months; find out more here“. Once they’ve switched I’ll update this article.

To Conclude

Many teabag manufacturers have made the switch to more planet-friendly teabags. However, it’s clear that some of the big players, like M&S, Aldi and Lidl still have some way to go before all of the big tea bag brands are plastic-free.

If your tea manufacturer of choice isn’t mentioned here, then do email or tweet them to ask about their teabags.

Whilst PLA is not an environmental panacea if disposed of correctly, it is better for the planet than fossil fuel-based plastic methods of sealing teabags. Therefore, it’s vitally important they are disposed of properly. If you don’t have access to council food waste collections, then your best course of action would be to tear open the bag to allow you to compost the tea leaves. You would then put the teabag in with your general waste.

Phew, that was a long one! Time to put the kettle on for a plastic-free cuppa I think! Do also check out my guide to the best oat milk. I’ve looked into all sorts of ethics behind the most popular oat milk brands in the UK and uncovered all sorts of murky things.

Resources

The Plastics to Avoid Next Time You’re Shopping

plastics to avoid

Today’s let’s chat plastic and the plastics to avoid next time you are at the supermarket.

I know we are all trying to avoid plastic as best we can. And I’m not advocating the use of unnecessary plastic. But let’s have some real talk first before moving on to the plastics to avoid. Going 100% plastic-free isn’t something I have been able to achieve, or get close to.

It’s certainly a work in progress. However, the plastic-free movement is tied to a whole lot of privilege. From privilege in terms of money, time, access to shops, health, capacity, and ability. As such, it’s unlikely to become a realistic endpoint any time soon for many. Including myself. Do I feel guilty about this? No, I certainly don’t feel guilty for not being able to be plastic-free. And you shouldn’t either.

It’s also important to not lose sight of the fact that plastic waste occurs further upstream before “plastic-free” items get to us. This excellent article points out that bulk shops themselves aren’t plastic-free. Meanwhile, someone I know who makes plastic-free/packaging-free products confided in me that they can’t source the raw materials plastic-free. Plastic waste is still produced from our actions, even if we don’t physically have to deal with that waste.

So plastics come into our life, whether we like it or not. And whether we see them or not.

One thing we can do is make better choices about the types of plastic that come into our lives. One of those is to try and avoid certain types of plastic.

The Plastics to Avoid

According to research from the University of Oxford, of the plastic waste produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9% of that was recycled.

In England, the government aims to recycle 50% of waste by 2020. This rises to 75% by 2035. Scotland has a target to recycle 70% of waste by 2025, as does Wales. Northern Ireland has a proposal that 60% of waste is recycled by 2020.

The array of numbers on plastic can be complex and vary from local authority area to local authority area. However, one of the best ways to help ensure that your plastic is actually recycled is to understand a bit more about the different types of plastic.

This is a really useful table from The University of Oxford about different types of plastic, and their recyclability. Every local authority area is different in what they will accept for recycling so treat this as a more general guide.

The Types of Plastic

plastics to avoid
Source

Remember, to increase the chance of an item being recycled, make sure it’s thoroughly washed – without any food on it.

Now that we know what is and what isn’t recyclable it’s important to bear in mind that just because something is recyclable doesn’t mean that it’s economically viable to recycle. Say what? Put simply, some plastics aren’t worth the cost of recycling them.

It’s easy to forget that recycling is a global industry when we’re putting our recycling bins out on the kerb on bin day. I think a lot of us see recycling as a public service, when actually it’s a huge multi-billion pound global industry. Yep, an industry, which like any industry makes decisions based on cost-effectiveness.

The Colour of the Plastic Is Important Too

Recycling companies sell recycled plastic pellets to manufacturers as a raw material. Each different type of plastic, and crucially the different colour of the pellets commands a different value.

I’ve put together a graphic indicating the maximum price per tonne recycling companies can earn for different types of plastic. This was correct as of August 2019.

Source

As you can see, different plastics are worth different amounts. Clear, white, and light blue plastics (both HDPE and PET plastics) are worth considerably more than coloured plastics, or composite plastics.

The reason for this variation in price is that clear, white and light blue coloured plastics can be recycled. They then can be used to make a variety of different products. It’s easy to add pigment to them to make them different colours if required by manufacturers, giving these types of plastics lots of flexibility in usage.

Coloured plastics on the other hand, when recycled, turn a murky brown colour. This isn’t particularly desirable to manufacturers as the plastics can only be made in the dark murky brown shade or darker. You can’t go lighter. As such, whilst you can put these items in the recycling bin for recycling, what you won’t see is that more than likely, further down the recycling chain, these green or red PET plastic bottles will get sifted out at a recycling centre and sent to landfill.

Takeaways on Plastics to Avoid

There’s a lot of information here/ However the main takeaways on the type of plastics to avoid are to avoid coloured PET. This is the plastic most commonly used for soft drinks, bottled water, and cooking oil. Clear ones are worth money to recyclers, but coloured ones are unlikely to be recycled due to their low value.

When choosing cleaning products and things like shampoos, and other beauty products which are commonly housed in HDPE bottles, choose products in a clear bottle preferably. If not clear then choose a white bottle. The clear bottles especially are worth nearly four times as much money to recyclers than the ones in coloured bottles. As they’re the plastic product yielding the most money to recyclers they are most likely to be recycled.

Manufacturers of eco products who use coloured plastic in their packaging know that this reduces the likelihood of the products being recycled. Treat this as a form of greenwashing. If you know of a company doing this email them, tweet them or whatever your preferred form of communication is and let them know that you’re on to them, and ask them why they aren’t using clear plastic.

Of course, plastics can only be recycled a certain number of times before it isn’t viable to recycle them anymore, whatever the colour. But let’s help increase our shockingly low recycling rates by demanding that manufacturers make better packaging choices based on recycling values.

PS: If you enjoyed this, do have a read of my article on are biodegradable plastics good for the environment.