Column: Ugh! My tea has what?

ipswich recycles

by Paula Jones

On really cold days, it’s nice to enjoy a hot, steaming cup of tea made from a handy teabag with some lemon and a bit of local honey. But now we find that soothing winter beverage might include a dose of microplastics as well.

What?

You’re probably shocked to learn that many teabags contain up to 25% plastic. In fact, who knew until a viral BBC video about tea production went viral back in late 2017?

So why is plastic in tea bags?

In order for the tea bags to seal up and keep their shape in hot liquid, a plastic polymer, namely polypropylene, is added. Even though the amounts of plastic found in tea bags are minimal — and can vary between manufacturers — it adds up.

“Pillow-style” teabags have a crimped edge in a square or round shape and are often made from a blend of paper and plastic woven fibers. The bag is sealed using heat, and the plastic binds it closed. 

“Silken” sachets are almost always made of plastic — not silk, as the name implies. The plastic used in these bags is typically food-grade nylon, but some are made from corn. It is important to understand that while the plant-based corn bags are “biodegradable,” they are not compostable at home and must be sent to a commercial facility to fully break down. 

“String and tag bags” are closed by folding the bag and stitching or stapling it shut. While these bags don’t require plastic to seal shut, they may still contain polypropylene fibers to keep the shape of the bag in hot water. 

Even if the tea bag itself is compostable, the sleeves used to individually package each bag usually contain a plastic or plastic foil layer to “maintain freshness” and cannot be composted or recycled. 

A 2019 Canadian McGill University study showed “that steeping a single plastic teabag at brewing temperature (95 °C) releases approximately 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics into a single cup of the beverage.” 

Good to know there are some popular brands that contain no plastic. They include some you can find easily at the market: Bigelow, Celestial Seasonings, Numi, Traditional Medicinals, Pukka, Republic of Tea, and Yogi.

(The embedded video below shows how to check your tea bags at home for plastic.) 

Many tea brands have compostable bags, but they are often packaged in sleeves made of plastic or lined with a plastic film or foil, making those “sleeves” non-compostable.

What to do?

Perhaps it’s a good time to start using loose tea. 

Tea aficionados all agree that if you’re looking for better taste, fresher tea, more health benefits, and no plastic, you should brew loose-leaf tea.

Tea has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can contribute to your overall wellness. The primary chemicals responsible for the health claims of green tea, called catechins, are found in the highest concentrations in fresh leaves.

It’s best to drink green tea as fresh as possible — as loose-leaf tea — to enjoy most of the health benefits of these phytochemicals.

Finally, remember to keep an eye out for hidden plastic. It’s really surprising just how many things are made of the stuff. Even in simple things like tea bags, plastic is everywhere. Perhaps using loose-leaf tea solves the problem best.


Send questions to ipswichrecycles@gmail.com, or visit the group’s Facebook page at Ipswich Recycles and Composts. Read more of Paula Jones’ columns here.


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