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The Food & Drink Items That Shockingly Contains Microplastic

microplastic in food and drink items

Did you know that some food items contain microplastic? Worryingly, here are eight key food and drink items that have been found to contain microplastic.

Nobody would willingly chow down on a bowlful of plastic. However, over the past few years, scientists have horrifyingly been finding microplastic in some of the most common food that we eat and the beverages that we drink. In fact, one study estimates that we each could be consuming as much as 5 grams of plastic a week. That’s the equivalent weight of a credit card. Over the course of a year, that’s 52 credit cards. Yikes!

Firstly, What Is Microplastic And Where Does It Come From?

Before looking at which foodstuffs contain microplastic, let’s first understand what microplastic is, and where it comes from.

Microplastics are what we call fragments of any type of plastic less than 5 mm in length. Sometimes these are visible to the human eye, other times they are so small that they cannot be seen.

Microplastics come from a variety of sources. Some microplastics are produced for commercial use, such as the cosmetics industry. Microbeads are banned. Yet other cosmetics like makeup and sunscreen (yes, sunscreen contains microplastic) are permitted to contain microplastic.

Other microplastics result from the breakdown of larger plastic items. These include plastic water bottles, plastic bags, and other items made of plastic. Microplastics are also shed from synthetic clothing when washed, and other textiles, such as fishing nets. Car tyres are also a major source of ocean microplastics. Meanwhile, paint flaking off of marine vessels is also a source. In short, there’s no single source, which makes it difficult to turn off the tap when it comes to microplastic.

Microplastics enter our food chain when they enter our oceans and waterways, and enter our soil. When microplastics are in the food we eat and that water we drink, this means we are ingesting plastic. The long-term effects of consuming plastic are not yet fully understood by scientists. However, microplastics have found in the placentas of unborn babies, in human faeces, and in our organs, such as our lungs, liver, spleen, and kidneys.

The Food That Contains Microplastic

the food that contains microplastics

Now we know more about microplastic, here are the food and drink items that scientists have found to contain microplastic.

Fruit & Vegetables

Italian researchers found microplastic in fruit and vegetables. Apples and carrots have the highest levels of microplastic particles. However, microplastics appeared in other crops such as pears, broccoli, lettuce, potatoes, radishes, and turnips.

Contamination in fruit and vegetables is thought to occur when plants suck water that contains microplastics up through their roots. The microplastic pass into the shoots, and form the edible parts of the plants. Fruit is more highly contaminated than vegetables. This is because fruit trees are older with deeper, more established root systems, and so they take in more water compared to vegetables.

Salt

Would you like some microplastic on your chips? Yup, research has found microplastics in 90% of table salt brands sampled from across the globe. This means that even if the food you eat doesn’t contain microplastic, then what you season it with probably does. The bad news is that microplastic in salt isn’t geographically isolated to one part of the world. Therefore it’s impossible to find a salt that doesn’t contain microplastic. Sea salt has the highest concentration of microplastic, followed by lake salt and then rock salt.

Tea

Microplastics aren’t just found in the food we eat, but also in the beverages we drink. Tea, for example, contains microplastic. This is because teabags are heat-sealed using polypropylene plastic, to stop tea bags from breaking. Other brands use plastic mesh tea temples in place of paper-based tea bags. The good news is that some brands have started to phase out the use of plastic in their teabags. Check out my post on plastic-free teabags for an updated list for 2021.

Bottled Water

If you’re thinking sod tea, I’ll just stick to water, then I’ve got bad news. Tap water contains microplastic. If this news makes you want to pass on tap water, then the bad news is that bottled water contains even more microplastic. In fact, researchers found that bottled water contains roughly twice as many plastic particles compared to tap water. And it was also found that the single largest source of plastic ingestion globally is through water, both bottled and tap.

It’s not entirely clear why bottled water is more contaminated. It could be contaminated source water. However, it is more likely that it has come from the plastic polymers used to make the bottles and bottle caps.

Reach for the tap – it’s better all round.

Beer

Bad news, beer lovers. In 2020, scientists found microplastic in beer. The study looked at a variety of beverages. Whilst microplastics were found in most of the beverages studied, beer was found to have the highest levels of microplastics.

Whilst the average number of particles found in beer was similar to the average number of particles found in tap water, water supply isn’t always a factor. Another study found that two beers brewed in the same city using the same municipal water supply had wildly different microplastic levels. This suggests the beer production process may also generate microplastics.

Rice

Fancy a side of plastic with your curry? A 2021 study found that microplastic is found in packaged rice. Regardless of whether the rice was packaged in paper or plastic, the type of packaging made no difference. And worryingly, pre-cooked rice (such as sachets of microwavable rice) contains four times as much plastic. The takeaway here is to try to avoid instant rice, and instead cook your own.

The researchers tried a number of methods to see if they could reduce the concentration of microplastic in rice. They found that shaking the rice in its packaging made no difference in the concentration of plastics. However, they did hit top tip gold. Washing your rice before cooking reduces plastic contamination by 20 to 40%.

Fish & Shellfish

Unsurprisingly, samples of fish and shellfish contain microplastic. Zoologists believe that this has come from fish ingesting microplastics found in water or on the seafloor, or by ingesting prey that have previously ingested microplastics themselves. Commercially farmed fish are also likely to be fed fishmeal that inadvertently contains microplastic.

Not all seafood is equal though. Since microplastics usually start out in an animal’s gut, seafood which includes the animal’s stomach, like mussels, oysters, shrimp, prawns, and other filter-feeding sea life, may be more likely to contain higher levels of microplastic.

Honey

I think the most worrying find on my microplastic and food research mission was finding out that honey contains microplastic.

Bees are the most infinitely complex and fascinating creatures. The bodies and legs of bees are covered in thousands of tiny hairs. When bees are in flight, these tiny hairs become positively charged. This is partly because of the friction of the air against the bee. When a positively charged bee lands on a flower, it attracts the negatively charged pollen grains. These grains then naturally stick to the bees’ hair.

It’s a whole world of wonder. And you’re probably wondering where the microplastic comes into play? Well, it’s not just pollen that the tiny hairs on bees collect and hold. These positively charged hairs also attract other matter. Traditionally this would have been bits of plant matter or dust, but it seems that bees are now also attracting airborne plastic. This plastic gets taken back to the hive, and consequently ends up in honey.

Where or who you buy your honey from seems to have little impact on the concentration of microplastic in each jar. One team of Danish scientists studied bees from hives located in different settings. Some hives were located in a city, and other hives were located in suburban and rural areas. It was anticipated that the bees located in urban areas would present the highest counts of microplastics. This is because urban areas contain the highest densities of microplastics. And indeed, the city bees did have the highest counts of microplastics. However, the surprising find was that the counts of microplastics on suburban and rural bees were not much lower. This highlights the role of wind in dispersing microplastics.  

So What To Do About Microplastic In Food?

microplastic in food and drink items

The probability is that microplastic is in the vast majority of the food that we eat and the things we drink. What’s more, it’s also in the air that we breathe. A study at Macquarie University in Sydney took samples of airborne dust from homes, where it was found that 40% of it was plastic. There’s simply no way to avoid microplastic.

Microplastic is a global problem that we as individuals alone can’t solve. What’s more, there isn’t one single solution to eliminating microplastic from the food we eat. Scientific American says that according to microplastic experts, in order to get a handle on our microplastic problem, the world needs to take three primary steps.

In the short term society needs to significantly curtail unnecessary single-use plastic items such as water bottles, plastic shopping bags, straws, and utensils. In the medium term, governments need to strengthen garbage collection and recycling systems to prevent waste from leaking into the environment between the trash can and the landfill and to improve recycling rates. And in the long run, scientists need to devise ways to break plastic down into its most basic units, which can be rebuilt into new plastics or other materials.”

I would add a fourth primary step. That is that corporations need to reconsider their packaging and consider alternatives away from throwaway plastics as a matter of urgency. The worst plastic polluters include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, Danone, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, and Colgate-Palmolive. These companies have a huge responsibility to curtail their plastic packaging and plastic usage.

Where Do We Begin?

In the interim, I think that instead of asking whether it is dangerous to eat apples or drink water or beer that contains microplastics, we should instead use this knowledge as a conversation starter. Discussing, as a society – including consumers, governments, scientists, and manufacturers – just how and when we should use various types of plastic materials feels like a good way forward. As a society, we can and must do better, and finding ways to turn the tap off on microplastics is imperative.

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 comes 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 tea bags. 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 terminologies 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 of 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 sells 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 its 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 makes 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 has taken their environmental 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 to blueberry, their unique tea blends tread lightly on the planet.

Sainsbury’s

Place in your food waste bin

I added Sainsbury’s to this plastic-free teabag list in August 2021. After news that from summer 2021 Sainsbury’s own-brand teabags will be plastic-free, as part of its ongoing commitment to halve plastic packaging by 2025, this finally rolled out in-store in August 2021. The new tea bags are made from PLA and are industrially compostable. What I also like is that the packaging is completely plastic-free too. The box isn’t wrapped in plastic, and nor is there a plastic foil bag inside the box. Accessible plastic-free tea for the win!

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 has quite a few High St stores dotted around the UK. Again, T2 is perhaps best known for its loose-leaf tea selection. However, its 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, is 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 does have a wide selection of loose leaf teas, and their tea bags 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 updated in April 2021 that:

About half of our UK Yorkshire teabags are now plant-based. That’s all the boxes in sizes 40, 160, and 240, and it applies to normal Yorkshire Tea as well as Yorkshire Gold, Yorkshire Tea Decaf, and Yorkshire Tea for Hard Water. Boxes of 210 are close behind and by the summer (2021) our boxes of 80 tea bags should all be plant-based too.

Which Teabags Do Contain Plastic?

As of August 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. Finally, in June 2021, Aldi confirmed they are removing single-use plastic from their own-brand range of teabags. This is scheduled to happen by the end of 2021. I’ll update this post when this change comes into effect.

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. I can’t find any details to say that they looking to switch to more sustainable options, which is disappointing.

Marks & Spencer

Marks & Spencer’s non-herbal range of tea bags still contains plastic.

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.

Tetley

Currently, Tetley teabags contain plastic. However, their goal is to 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 in January 2021 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. I’ve heard nothing more as of August 2021.

To Conclude The Plastic-Free Teabag Conversation

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 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! If you’ve enjoyed this, then 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.