For many people, tea is the most important drink of the day and an essential part of the morning routine, representing the start of a new day. After water, tea is the second most-consumed drink in the world1. The tea plant provides ample choice to suit our moods or taste preferences, from black tea to green tea and everything in-between.
Traditionally, loose leaf tea was the standard. However, over 100 years ago, a new and more innovative way to brew tea came about - the tea bag. Tea bags present a simple and convenient way to brew tea.
Did you know that many brands use plastic material in their tea bags? Tea bags containing plastic are more typical than you might at first thing, and it's important to consider the tea brands you patronize. However, recent studies have revealed that this could come at a cost to human health and the environment.
It may come to you as a surprise that plastic tea bags exist aside from the outer plastic packaging that some tea brands use. Many premium tea companies incorporate plastics into the manufacturing process to provide the required strength to prevent tears when we seep our tea and apply pressure to release the flavor.
As such, not all tea bag brands are simply a combination of tea and paper. Whereas the percentage of plastic each brand uses differs, the presence of these plastics means that such tea bags are not fully biodegradable.
Due to misinformation or a lack of information, sometimes people throw their used plastic tea bags into the compost pile with other food waste. This contaminates the quality of the compost and also contributes to plastic pollution.
Due to the global tea consumption levels, this piles up to create damaging effects. In the UK alone, a study revealed that Britons use 61 billion tea bags yearly.
The main reason is that some tea companies use it as part of their heat-sealing process. They use plastic glue to seal paper tea bags and to prevent them from falling apart. This also ensures that the bags remain closed while in boiling hot water. Polypropylene is the prominent plastic sealant material that allows the tea bags to be heat sealed.
Like most plastics, this presents damaging effects on the environment and human health. This plastic polymer enables tea bags to maintain their shape in hot liquid and stay sealed. On the other hand, there are also tea bags that have the actual bag made of plastic.
The presence of this plastic presents challenges related to sustainability and health concerns. The same way plastic takes several years to break down is how these plastics affect the lifecycle of each tea bag. Since many tea bags contain plastic, conscious tea drinkers need to evaluate the products they buy simply because a single cup of tea each day accumulates over time. Apart from this affecting home compost heaps, research has also presented potential health risks.
Heat-sealed tea bags with polypropylene present significant environmental challenges. This is primarily a problem because many people tend to toss their tea bags in their home compost heap or curbside food waste.
Although tea bags with actual plastic bags pose a greater danger, those paper bags with plastic glue are also a problem. By adding them to biodegradable waste, you'll be including toxic chemicals in the organic matter. Additionally, these plastic bags are sometimes not fully recyclable.
Conventional tea bags will not wholly decompose due to their plastic components. This means that when they end up in landfills, they pile up to contribute to pollution. Some city guidelines suggest adding tea bags to commercial food waste bins. These are sometimes considered industrially compostable.
However, the problem with this is that the plastics in these tea bags still pose a problem. Therefore, a good amount of the plastic particles most likely end up in the industrial composts in which farmers grow our food. Accordingly, the eco-minded should seek out completely plastic-free tea bags and champion the cause for market-wide change.
Tea bags that contain plastic or are made of plastic also pose health risks and environmental challenges. A team of Canadian researchers discovered that a single plastic tea bag releases around 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nano plastics into one cup.
The researchers from McGill University steeped the tea bags at a brewing temperature of 95 degrees to arrive at this result. This is specifically related to those brands that use plastic to make their tea bags. When plastics are released into the tea, they seep into the digestive system of the drinker. The researchers also found that the amount of microplastics in tea bags is relatively high compared with other foods.
To test the effects of the plastic release, the researchers also went further to expose water fleas to the tea. Although the particles didn't kill the fleas, the researchers noticed malformations and behavioral effects.
Although the full effects of these microplastics on human health are still not fully known, some papers suggest possible effects. The polyethylene terephthalate particles in each drink could affect the endocrine system. In the long run, constant consumption can lead to health risks. And these effects are by no stretch limited to tea bags, with microplastics found in everything from shellfish to table salt and even Iceland's glaciers.
These plastic particles' role in our lives is vast, affecting the environment to infiltrate the food chain and direct consumption. As a result, experts suggest loose leaf tea or plastic-free alternatives made with biodegradable materials. This option is safer for you and the environment. Although some manufacturers still use plastic in their bags, others are switching to eco-friendly alternatives.
The invention of the tea bag dates back to over 100 years ago. Back then, the materials manufacturers used mainly were 100% biodegradable and used natural fiber materials for their tea bags. In recent times, many brands now rely on plastic which is cheaper for large-scale production and, in advance of an alternative seen as a more reliable to seal.
Unfortunately, this has a significant impact on the environment since the bags won't fully decompose. Even with tea bags tagged as industrially compostable, many of them still contain plastic. This just means that you can't add them to your home compost heap.
Due to the rise in plastic consciousness, some brands are rising to the challenges and switching to plastic-free and biodegradable tea bags. Some of them use materials like organic cotton and manilla hemp. Also, rather than using a heat sealant, they use a stitching method to seal the bags.
A good example is Pukka Herbs which uses a simple stitch of organic cotton. Instead of using polypropylene or a metal staple for each tea bag, the brand uses organic strings. According to a statement on the website, it was the first company to make this switch.
Pukka Herbs uses a blend of wood pulps, plant cellulose fibers, and natural abaca to make its bags. The brand's unique folding process is more complex and costly than sealing by heat. Perhaps, this more expensive and more complicated procedure is the main reason why many brands have still not switched to plastic-free bags.
The discussion of using plastic in tea bags also expands to the types of strings and tags that brands use. Another tea company, Numi Tea, uses unbleached plant fiber for each tea bag. The brand does not use plastic in its string and tag tea bags. Instead, it uses cotton for the strings and 100% recycled materials for the tags. It also uses soy-based inks to prevent toxic chemicals from synthetic inks.
Below is a rundown of some well-known brands that have transitioned to plastic-free tea bags and some that still use plastic:
One of the UK's largest tea companies recently made the switch to plastic-free tea bags. The brand made a full sustainability commitment by also switching to plastic-free packaging. In the past, PG Tips used polypropylene to seal each tea bag.
However, with recent developments, it now uses plant-based materials from corn starch. This is a significant mention considering the popularity of the tea company. By removing plastic film from the packaging of their new bags, the brand is making an all-around sustainability commitment.
Hampstead Tea is another major brand that's dedicated to sustainable and ethical endeavors. The brand uses a plastic-free process. Each of this brand's tea bags is fully compostable and biodegradable. So, whether they end up on land or you include them in your compost heap, they leave no toxic traces. Hampstead Tea uses GM-free starch to make its tea pyramids. The brand uses whole tea, organic ingredients, and no harmful ingredients. Also, each plastic-free bag is free from strings, labels, and tags.
This is another brand that is constantly reviewing its processes to switch to plastic-free methods. The brand's tea bags are bleach-free, organic, and follow fair trade practices. Clipper Teas' bags are plastic-free with a non-GM plant-based material for sealing. Also, it claims to have created the world's first unbleached, plastic-free non-GMO tea bags. The brand has stated that its next commitment is switching its inner foil packaging to a biodegradable wrap.
This organic produce company creates its own tea. Abel & Cole uses a bi-product of corn-starch, called soilon, to make its plastic-free tea bags. This makes the bags biodegradable at the right temperature. The brand packages its products in brown recyclable paper bags. It uses Nature-flex inner linings that are compostable as well.
Supermarkets are also joining the wagon to make the switch. Sainsbury has plans to switch to a plant-based option for its tea bags. Previously, it used polypropylene in its products as a sealant. Moving forward, the supermarket has announced its plans to eliminate plastics completely in its products.
Scientists have carried out tests to determine whether these tea bags contained plastic. Over time, we can see more brands being transparent about their desire to make changes.
Yorkshire recently announced that it would be replacing its oil-based plastic with plant-based PLA. PLA is still a type of plastic, but it comes from renewable materials rather than fossil fuels. Twinings has also stated that it's striving to improve its use of materials. This is to ensure that they are fully home compostable. The brand provides a loose leaf tea range for people that would rather switch to that option. You can add these tea leaves to your home compost and watch them break down with other waste products.
Eco-conscious consumers are increasingly demanding transparency and accountability from brands. As a result of this and brands' sustainability commitments, we've seen a rise in plastic-free tea bag alternatives. These options are better for both the people and the planet. This means you can enjoy your mug of tea while staying sustainable without all the plastic.
If you enjoy the traditional way, you might enjoy the switch to loose leaf tea. The vast majority of tea connoisseurs tend to appreciate having their drink with the tea leaves.
Loose leaf tea is one of the most sustainable ways to enjoy tea. It is plastic-free and sealant-free. You don't have to worry about metal staple sealing or plastics with loose leaf tea. Other alternatives include reusable tea bags for your tea leaves and plastic-free tea bag brands.
Loose leaf tea strainers are on the rise as an eco-friendly alternative to conventional options. They present a step in the direction of zero-waste tea time. This way, you can sustainably steep your tea leaves.
These strainers come in various materials, shapes, colors, and sizes. Some brands use cotton to make these bags, while others provide metal strainers. So, you have a plethora of options to choose from.
Various eco-friendly strainers and reusable tea bag products are available if you're looking for these options. You'll be able to find sizes for your small cups or large tea posts. Another interesting feature is using some of these strainers for other purposes, including straining yogurt and milk.
One of the simplest ways to avoid plastics in tea is to choose loose leaf tea. Organic loose leaf tea is something many tea connoisseurs enjoy. They consider this more flavourful and beneficial compared with ground tea. This is because the leaves haven't gone through processing to become granules.
Loose-leaf teas often come in tin packages or other eco-friendly packing options like boxes. Generally, these are usually cheaper to purchase. The great thing about loose leaf tea is that you can buy it in bulk at your local grocery store. You can reuse these leaves, thereby helping you minimize waste.
To make a cup, all you need are the leaves, water, and an optional strainer. Boil some water and pour the leaves into your cup. Then, pour the boiled water onto the leaves and leave the tea to steep. To avoid swallowing the leaves, you can use a reusable strainer or bag. This way, you can easily enjoy a cup of tea without worrying about the leaves.
When you buy loose leaf tea, an eco-friendly alternative, you'll save costs, get all the tea flavors, and protect the environment.
Another alternative to plastic tea bags is making the switch to brands that use a plastic-free process. If loose leaf tea is just not for you, there are eco-friendly tea bag options.
As we examined above, some big brands are consciously switching to fully biodegradable and compostable tea bag products. These are safer and kinder to the environment and also to human health. To confirm these brands, you can also check their sustainability reports on their websites. Most brands that are making sustainability commitments also ensure transparency in their processes and material use.
Patronizing eco-friendly tea bag brands will help you enjoy your tea without the guilt of contributing to pollution. When you walk into a supermarket, you can also find out from the attendants. Some supermarkets are also committed to promoting sustainable companies.
Also, pay attention to the general 'compostable' term. In some instances, this could mean the product is only industrially compostable. Putting this in a home compost pile may not be the best option because of the temperature requirements.
Enjoying your cup of tea doesn't have to be at the expense of the environment. Plastic teabags release billions of small particles into our cups of tea which no one needs.
With various options available to you, you can make choices to protect the planet. Staying informed on the ingredients and materials that brands use will help you make intentional purchase decisions. Also, this can have numerous health benefits since you'll be eliminating plastic.
Statista Research Department. (2021, March 19). Volume of tea consumption worldwide from 2012 to 2025
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.