Plastic free tea bags? Yes, you heard that right…
Your cup of tea might contain 11 billion microplastic particles and this is due to the way the tea bag is engineered.
According to a recent Canadian study at McGill University, steeping a plastic tea bag at a brewing temperature of 95°C releases around 11.6 billion microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic between 100 nanometres and 5 millimetres in size – into a single cup. Compared to salt, for example, which has been also found to contain plastic, each cup contains thousands of times greater mass of plastic, at 16 micrograms per cup. Please find more details about this study here.
Let’s go one step back and understand how a tea bag is made and why it might contain plastic:
Are you shocked? Yes, we were too. We couldn’t believe that incorporating plastic in tea bags wasn’t tested for migration before engineering them, without even mentioning that fact that they are of course not biodegradable.
From now on, ask the brand of your prefered tea if they manufacture the tea bags using plastic or even better for you & the environment, switch completely to loose leaf tea.
Here a small guide to some of the most available and favourite brands in Australia and other English speaking countries. The answers were provided by the manufacturers or we found the information on their websites:
Plastic Free Tea Bags
- Dilmah Organic: only the organic tea range tea bags are free of plastic. Read more here.
- Harney & Sons – “Our paper tea bags are compostable, oxygen bleached with a method that does not produce dioxins, there is no epichlorohydrin, PET, or PLA in our paper tea bags. We offer a variety of certified organic teas in them. The tea bags are fastened with a knot in the string, there is no glue or staple on the tea bag, and they are a great choice if you have any concerns about plastics.”
- Higher Living Teas – Their teabags are made out of unbleached paper with an organic cotton string stitched into the paper to form the teabag, therefore there’s no plastic. The teabag is completely compostable along with their envelope and the boxes are recyclable.
- Lipton – Their Quality Black and Intense traditional tea bags are made from Manilla hemp and cellulose fibres. They are compostable but not recyclable.
- Lyons – their packs of 40, 80 and 160 teabags are plastic-free, but the large 240 pyramid-bag aren’t. Ree more in the next section below.
- Nature’s Cuppa Organic – Eatrite Australasia Pty Ltd (the manufacturer) responded that their tea bags are made with unbleached paper, and no polymers nor plasticisers. That makes sense, because they are closed with a metal staple.
- Pukka – They use a simple stitch of organic cotton and a unique folding process. They don’t need to use polypropylene to hold their teabags together and these are therefore free from plastic. They were the first company to ever use organic strings to hold our teabags together without the need of a metal staple or polypropylene. Find out more here.
- Qi Tea – Their tea bags are completely plastic free. They try to keep all their packaging as completely plastic free as possible so it’s 100% recyclable and use veggie inks so it’s also compostable. The only part that has a little plastic is the envelope wrapper, because it helps keep it fresher longer, but they are working on an alternative substrate for that.
- Tetley – They have confirmed their stringed tea bags (pyramid and regular) are plastic free.
Tea Bags with Plasticisers / PLA Plant Based Plastic
- Barry’s Tea – “Our tea bags are not currently compostable. A small amount of polypropylene is used in teabags to allow the teabag to be heat sealed. We are currently trialling alternative options for heat sealing our teabags, using plant-based alternatives that are fully biodegradable. Sustainability is something that is really important to us and we’re working closely with our tea filter paper suppliers. As we produce millions of tea bags a week, we need to ensure that the replacement works from a manufacturing perspective. These trials are at an advanced stage and once we have a solution confirmed, we will announce when our new biodegradable tea bags will be available. We are fully committed to this. In the meantime, we appreciate your patience and support. Best, Barry’s Tea”.
- Bushells – their tea bag paper is made from manila hemp, cellulose and thermoplastic fibers, as such they are not compostable or recyclable.
- Celestial Seasonings – Their stapleless bags are primarily made of abaca, a plant-based fibre. They use some plastic fibers that are made of food grade polypropylene, not nylon, which are BPA and BPS free to ensure the tea bags remain properly sealed. This helps reduce overall waste in the environment, as this type of tea bag does not require strings, tags, staples, or individual wrappers, which saves 3.5 million pounds of waste from entering landfills every year.
- Their pyramid style Exceptional range use a material derived from maize starch which is treated by an enzyme to create the compound poly-lactic acid (PLA) which has a ‘plastic-like’ character which can be spun into fibre. The teabags are technically compostable however this relates more to commercial composting and not home composting so we do not advertise these as biodegradable. They are now in the process of changing ALL their teabags (Including tagless bags) over to plastic-free PLA material.
- Their standard teabags (non-pyramid bags) i.e. Dilmah Premium, Ceylon Green Tea and Infusions are composed mostly of natural cellulose fibres which contain no plastic coating such as epichlorohydrin and do not use chemical paper bleaching. Currently, these tagless teabags which do not use a staple or string to seal the bag contain 2% of polypropylene fibres used only for the heat seal that joins the bag together. These polypropylene fibres are a food-safe material which does not leech into water (like nylon or PET). For environmental reasons however, some choose to use loose leaf tea or organic teabags. This means our tagless teabags are not yet compostable or biodegradable yet but the imminent move to PLA material will eliminate the need for this 2% of polypropylene fibres as PLA can also be heat sealed.
- Read their full explanation here.
- Harney & Sons – “Our sachets are a BPA free food grade nylon, though we are in transition to a biodegradable material and are excited to be making the change! We have been testing non-GMO biodegradable sugarcane based polylactic acid sachet material for about a year now and have recently started introducing it to some of our product lines, it is currently being sold in our Organic Ginger Turmeric bag of 50 sachets as well as the bag of 50 sachets of Matcha Iri Genmaicha. We haven’t had any luck getting the strings to attach to the new material, and have a different type of biodegradable PLA coming soon. We hope the new material will be successful on our machines and able to attach a string.”
- Ito En: “Our Matcha Green Tea tea bags are made of food grade PET filter materials (Polyethylene Terephthalate). We are also actively researching for plant-based material options and currently testing its compatibility to hopefully switch to plastic free materials in the future”.
- Lipton Green Decaf, Chai and Herbal traditional tea bags are made from manilla hemp, cellulose and thermoplastic fibres. They are not compostable or recyclable.
- Lyons – the company who manufactures them in the UK, and belongs to Unilever, has phased out plastics entirely from their packs of 40, 80 and 160 teabags, but the large 240 pyramid-bag box will still contains PLA plastic derived from corn to seal the bags.
- Madame Flavour – The pyramid bags have a silky finish, no staple. They are made of a plant-based (PLA corn-starch derived) material sourced in Japan and are fully biodegradable according to their statement.
- Madura – their tea bag filter paper is comprised of 80% natural materials, with the balance made up of synthetic fibres.
- Nerada – They use 98% manila hemp with 2% food grade synthetic fibres to heat-seal the teabags. According to their statement the teabags are compostable. Read the full article here.
- Tetley – The tea bags without strings contain a small amount of plastic to ensure the bags remain closed when they are in your tea.
- Twinings: “Our current string and tag tea bags are sealed by crimping the paper tightly down the centre, folding and using a cotton stitch at the top. The material used in these products is predominantly made up of a natural plant based cellulose material together with an added plastic-based material (acrylic polymer binder). This material helps to bond the cellulose fibres together to make the paper used for making the tea bags. We are pleased to confirm that we will be rolling out completely plastic free string and tag teabags from March 2020. The material used in our pyramid Infuser tea bags is PLA, which is made from plant starch and selected for its environmentally sustainable nature; our new Cold In’fuse products are part of this range. As one of the largest producers of tea globally, Twinings is continually investigating and investing in the creation of sustainable packaging materials for our products. Our carton boxes are fully recyclable.”
What is PLA or Polylactic acid?
PLA plastic or polylactic acid is a vegetable-based plastic material, which commonly uses cornstarch as a raw material, but remember much of the corn supply is genetically modified! Furthermore, PLA tea bags will not biodegrade in your compost much. They can only be broken down in industrial and municipal composting facilities, of which there are very few in Australia.
For your health and for the environment, of course, the best way to drink tea is to use loose leaf tea and we love to drink our Chai Latte with our reusable telescopic straws 🙂
Loose Leaf Tea
T2, Nerada, Harney & Sons nearly every tea brand offers loose tea. The list of loose tea brands is endless!
On our directory for solutions to plastic pollution, we are listing eco-brands that offer their own range of loose leaf tea in certified home compostable packaging, so that you don’t have to worry if your tea bag is plastic free or not. For example:
Do you have any question or comment?
Or maybe would you like to give us some more information about other tea brands?
Just write in the section below or email email@example.com
Browse the Food & Drinks section of our eco-brands directory to find products in plastic-free packaging.
This article has been last updated on June 2022.