According to the UK Tea & Infusions Association, 60.2 billion cups of tea are consumed yearly. Plastic in teabags might be the last thing to cross your mind when you sit down to enjoy a cup of tea. As many teabags look like they are made out of paper, we probably think that they would decompose when we put them in the compost bin once we’ve finished using it.
However, polypropylene, a plastic polymer is found in many tea bags. A large number of tea bags are therefore cannot be composted or recycled.
Why do tea bags contain plastic?
Plastic is used in two areas when it comes to tea bags.
Firstly, Polypropylene is used to seal the tea bags and to keep in shape when the tea bag is placed in hot liquid. It also prevents the tea from escaping the bags when being transported or stored.
The amount of plastic is usually very small and varies between manufacturers. This can be the case for both plastic and paper teabags.
While the small amount might seem insignificant, it adds up quickly when globally millions of cups of tea are consumed daily. These plastics will leech into the ground and cause harm to the environment. Additionally, polypropylene has a negative effect on our bodies’ endocrine system and can cause a plethora of health issues.
Secondly, in some brands, the teabag itself is made out of plastic. This plastic begins to break down when the bag is put in hot water.
A 2019 study found that a single plastic tea bag can release 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nano plastics into one cup of tea. This is no doubt a major health concern for tea drinkers who love to have their daily cup of tea.
What are plastic-free tea bags made of?
Manufacturers need to seal tea bags in some way or another. Plastic-free tea bags usually use a bioplastic that is created from maize or corn starch. These plant-based materials function the same way as polypropylene does.
Bioplastic can also come from genetically modified (GMO) maize although they are not allowed in organic teabags.
List of Plastic-free tea bags that are safe
One of the best ways to enjoy your cup of tea without worries is to switch to zero plastic tea bags. However, many tea manufacturers cite the high cost as one of the reasons for stopping them from producing plastic-free tea bags.
However, as consumers become more aware of the presence of polyethene in their tea, more manufacturers have started making the switch. Here are several brands that do not have plastic in their teabags.
1. Abel & Cole
Abel & Cole is a brand that specializes in organic food and drink produce. Their teabags align with this and are made from SoilOn – a corn-starch which incorporates biomass material (polylactic acid) originating from plants.
Abel & Cole tea bags are not only completely biodegradable but also glue-free. They are sealed together with heat. Additionally, the packaging in which it comes in is made from paper and biodegradable PE, making it safe for the environment.
2. PG Tips
If you are looking for tea bags without plastic, PG Tips tea bags are 100% biodegradable. PG Tips announced in April 2018 on their website that they were “committed to moving all our pyramid bags to a new fully biodegradable, plant-based material. We’ve already made over 1 billion!”
3. Yorkshire Tea
Yorkshire tea has switched over to sealing their tea-bags with renewable plant-based materials. All their UK tea bags have made the switch since the end of 2019.
Clipper announced that they have managed to manufacture their very first completely plastic-free tea bag using natural plant-based materials. These tea bags allow you to enjoy your tea as usual and once you are done with the teabag, you can add it to your compost.
Clipper mentions on their website that their tea bags are ‘unbleached, plastic-free, and non-GM’. Packaging materials for tea bags are also recyclable.
5. Harney & Sons
Harney & Sons offer certified organic teas in paper tea bags that are compostable and oxygen bleached without epichlorohydrin, PET or PLA.
It’s an excellent choice for those who are concerned about using tea bags that are free of plastic. Additionally, there is no glue or staples on the tea bag as they are fastened with a knot in the string.
6. Qi Tea
Qi Tea teabags are 100% plastic-free. The packaging is 100% recyclable and because veggie ink is used on it, your compost heap will love the teabag.
The only plastic that can be found in Qi Tea is the envelope wrapper that is needed to keep the tea fresh. Steps are being taken to find an alternative substrate that can be used for the wrapper.
7. Higher Living Teas
Teabags from this brand are created from unbleached paper with organic cotton string stitched into the paper to form the shape of the bag. Higher Living Teas tea bags are compostable. The packaging boxes are recyclable.
8. Pukka Herbs
Pukka Herbs tea bags are free from plastics and held together with organic cotton that is fully compostable. Pukka claims to be the first company to use organic strings to their teabags together without the need for staples or polypropylene.
Teapigs tea bags are created with corn-starch, 100% biodegradable and will break down in 12 weeks if put in with your food waste collection.
The inner plastic bags that work to keep tea nice and fresh are made from Natureflex, a new material created from wood pulp. This game-changing wonder material is 100% suitable for home composting.
Made from Manilla help and cellulose fibres, Lipton’s Quality Black and Intense tea bags are plastic-free and compostable.
Tielka’s Fair Trade teas come in tea bags that are plastic-free made from plant-based fabric. They are sustainable, bio-renewable and industrially compostable.
12. Numi Organic Tea
According to the CEO and co-founder of Numi Organic Tea, Ahmed Rahim, their tea bags are made from biodegradable, unbleached Manila hemp fibre. These tea bags are verified to be Non-GMO and will degrade naturally in a compost heap.
13. The Republic of Tea
Teabags from the Republic of Tea are made from round, unbleached paper tea bags for almost 30 years. They do not contain unnecessary tags, strings or staples.
Twinings pyramid tea bags are made from enzyme-treated maize starch which allows it to be worked into filaments. These pyramid tea bags contain loose leaf tea which gives a superb brew.
However, a downside to these tea bags is its attached label which is covered in a thin layer of plastic that supposedly prevents the label from dissolving in hot water. Thus, remember to remove the label before composting.
15. We Are Tea
We Are Tea was established in 2007 and in 2012, this whole-leaf tea company made the decision to join the Ethical Tea Partnership. They switched from using nylon bags to plastic-free tea bags made from soilon.
We Are Tea uses ultrasound to seal their tea bags, making them biodegradable and compostable. The packaging used is also recyclable.
Sainsbury’s made the commitment to halve their use of plastic packaging by 2025 and their tea bags will be plant based from June 2021 onwards. Sainsbury’s ensures their customers that the quality of their tea bags will be the same. The new plastic free tea bags will be industrially compostable.
17. Hampstead Tea
Hampstead Tea takes their role in keeping the environment clean with 100% compostable tea pyramids made from GM-free sugar starch. Hampstead tea pyramids are also free of string, tags or labels and turn into compost in 91 days.
18. Waitrose Tea
Waitrose’s Duchy range tea bags are both plastic free and biodegradable.
19. Brew Tea Company
The Brew Tea Company’s tea bags are made from unbleached soilon. The inner packaging of the box is NatureFlex and the outer packaging is made of recyclable cardboard. The Brew Tea Company’s tea bags are industrially compostable.
20. Nature’s Cuppa Organic
Manufactured by Eatrite Australasia Pty Ltd, Nature’s Cuppa Organic tea bags are made with unbleached paper and do not contain polymers or plasticisers. However, the bags are closed with a metal staple.
Teatulia is a social enterprise that employ over 3,500 women in Bangladesh to plant, nurture and pick the tea. Women who work here have better wages that other tea businesses in the region. Teatulia also provides healthcare and education for the workers as well as their families.
Tetulia’s tea is pesticide free and the pyramid bags are made from unbleached soilon that is 100% biodegradable and glue-free.
Eteaket is a tea specialist cafe that sells its own brews in tea bags that are made from unbleached and biodegradable soilon. The tag on the bag is paper that is not laminated and the string on the bag is attached via ultrasound, meaning that glue is not used.
Solutions for plastic in tea bags
It can get a bit confusing when it comes to materials that are used to make plastic free tea bags. Here’s a rundown of the most common alternatives to plastic tea bags that many companies have opted for.
Corn starch is derived from corn grain and was originally discovered in the 1840s. It was used for starching laundry and in more recent times as a thickening agent and in the manufacturing and packaging industries.
Cornstarch is a popular choice because it is very affordable compared to other materials such as synthetic polymer that is made from petroleum.
Cornstarch is biodegradable when the Proteinase K enzymes are present to catalyze the hydrolytic decomposition of this material. As Proteinase K is readily available in nature, teabags that are made from cornstarch are biodegradable and great for mother nature.
Abaca is a tough yet biodegradable material that is extracted from Banana Leaves. It is also known as Manila hemp. Abaca has exceptional tensile strength and is used to make tea bags, paper, bags, carpets and even bank notes.
Wood pulp is made from wood or the bark of trees. It is also known as cellulose fiber. It shares similar characteristics with engineered fibers and is widely used as fiber-reinforcement composites. It is also used in the textile industry.
Cellulose is low in cost, low in density and completely degradable in soil as it is fully organic.
Cotton tea bags
Cotton is a material that is soft, strong and flexible. It is also biodegradable. These properties make cotton tea bags a popular alternative when it comes to solutions for plastic in tea bags.
If you’re wondering what exactly is NatureFlex, it is a packaging film made from wood pulp. This material is developed by Futamura for environmentally responsible packaging and is now much used by tea manufacturers.
NatureFlex is certified as 100% compostable and suitable for home composting. It is also marine degradable. Futamura has claimed that NatureFlex has a very high moisture barrier and thus, is able to keep tea bags in premium conditions for a long period of time.
While the minute amount of plastics found in tea bags may not seem like much, it will build into a large amount over the years. Besides using plastic-free tea bags, you can also opt for loose leaf tea. Loose leaf tea is widely available and uses less packaging making it a better choice for the environment as well as your body. If you have the time and space, you can also try growing plants to make herbal teas such as chamomile and peppermint. As for tea bags, always check labels and packaging to determine if what your purchase is free of plastic.
Also, read our article on “30+ tips to live a plastic-free life“