Plastic in our tea…?

by | 21 Nov 2021

Is there Plastic in Tea Bags?

Putting the kettle on for a nice of cup of tea is as much a part of our day as waking up in the morning for so many of us. We drink litres of the stuff. My other half has been known to drink 12 cups in a day. It’s habitual, it’s comforting and it’s enjoyable, especially with a biscuit! 

But I’m afraid this post may burst your tea bubble as I tell you that an average cup of tea contains plastic… 

When I think about a cup of tea, plastic isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, yet recent studies have shown that a cup of tea can contain millions of microplastic particles. Yes, you read correctly, millions of microplastic particles, and some studies have shown there to be billions of microplastic particles in a single cup of tea. 

The seemingly innocent teabag has been exposed as being a direct source plastic ingestion. 

So how does plastic get into a teabag? The teabag has a plastic polymer added in the manufacturing process, namely polypropylene, in order to seal the bag and ensure it maintains its shape when brewing. So the tea itself doesn’t contain plastic but the convenient little bags we all use for our everyday cup do contain plastic. 

This means that the tea inside the bag will decompose naturally if popped in your compost but the bag itself will sit in your compost for hundreds of years. 

How do I make myself plastic free cup of tea then? I hear you ask. There are a couple of ways you can try. 

How to get Plastic Free Tea Bags?

One option is to buy loose tea (ideally from a refill or zero waste shop) and brew the old fashioned way like your granny used to, in a teapot, using a stainless steel strainer to catch the leaves.

I bought a glass teapot some time ago now which has a built in stainless steel tea diffuser and have been buying loose tea in my reused glass jars from my local refill shop. The tea is delicious but it does take longer to brew than a regular teabag and it does create more washing up.

Another option is to buy the loose tea as above but instead of a teapot you can use a stainless steel tea infuser directly in the cup. 

These 2 options are great at avoiding plastic altogether but do require a little more effort.

A third option is to choose one of the big tea brands that are now offering plastic free tea bags.

A number of big brands have started to develop a ‘plastic free’ offering following media pressure and exposure of the microplastic issue, but I’d be mindful with this option as some of the plastic free claims may not be as plastic free as they first appear. 

A number of experts have disputed these plastic free tea bags claim recently as the ‘plastic free’ element is in many cases a plant based plastic instead of an oil based plastic, so in fact still considered to be a type of plastic.

Many plant based plastics do not break down naturally in normal compost conditions and couldn’t be popped into your compost heap to decompose naturally for example.  

Which Tea Bags are Plastic Free?

In order to be sure that tea bags are plastic free we must opt for loose leaf tea.

My other half has been harder to convince to switch to loose tea and teapots and he recently bought a box of PG tips plant based biodegradable teabags which claim to be completely plastic free, they have even removed the unnecessary plastic film from the box.

The teabags claim to be biodegradable and have replaced the polypropylene they used to use with a with a plant based material derived from corn.

There is no further information on what this plant based material is though so I’m assuming they mean a type of plant based plastic. The fact that they advise to put used tea bags in the food waste bin instead of the compost bin also points to this assumption.

The only way I think we can be sure we that we are drinking a completely plastic free cup of tea is by slowing down, going old school, buying loose leaf tea and enjoying the teapot brewing process as part of the experience.

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