Before we start this article can we just pause and think about how crazy the title is; ‘plastic-free tea’. Who in their wildest dreams ever thought we’d have to worry about plastic in our tea? And yet here we are.
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How much of an issue is plastic in tea?
You may have heard the finding of a 2019 Canadian study, which stated that “particles released from the teabag packaging are several orders of magnitude higher than plastic loads previously reported in other foods”. This is naturally concerning but it’s worth mentioning that it appears that this study only used 100% plastic teabags, and not the paper / plastic composites that are standard.
That’s not to say that standard tea-bags don’t release micro particles of plastic. It’s just that a test hasn’t been carried out to determine how this. As everything, it call comes down to funding. If someone will pay for the study it’ll happen.
So how harmful is ingesting plastics? The honest answer is we simply don’t know. We know that microfibres have been shown to stunt the growth and affect the reproductive systems of marine creatures but it’s really hard to assess the long term damage of ingesting plastics on humans that are out in the world interacting with lots of other factors. Personally I abide by the precautionary principle; if hasn’t yet been proven to be harmless I avoid it.
Why is there plastic in my teabags?
When tea was first imported to Ireland and the UK we had it loose in a tea pot. Then diffusers were introduced used to separate the leaves from the water, next emerged tea bags. According to the UK Tea and Infusions Association the invention of the tea bag was accidental, and happened when customer’s receiving silk sample pouches of tea in the post mistook them for a new type of diffuser and put them straight into their pots with boiling water.
As mentioned the first tea bag was made from silk, but this was quickly changed to gauze, which worked better and was more economical. The gauze tea bags were either sealed with cotton stitching or a metal clip, which also held in place a cotton string and tag.
As time progressed manufacturers moved away from fabric tea bags towards sealable paper-based bags. Now you and I both know that you can’t seal paper with heat so they needed to blend the paper fibres with a material that melted and fused when heated. That material turned out to be plastic, specifically polypropylene and that ladies and gentlemen, and non-binary, is how we have plastic in our tea!
Interestingly tea bags from different brands contain different amounts of plastic. A study carried out by Secondary School students in Cork found that Barry’s Gold Blend tea bags contained .08g of plastic, while Barry’s Decaf, Bewley’s Original and Lidl’s Knightsbridge Jasmine Green Tea all came in at .06g of plastic, with Twining’s Chamomile bags and Aldi’s Diplomat Lemon and Ginger contained only .05g of plastic.
What are ‘plastic-free’ tea bags made from?
All of the ‘plastic-free’ tea-bags on offer by the brands listed in this article use a form of bio-plastic, made from plants, called PLA (polyactic acid) to make their biodegradable tea bags.
PLA is typically made from the sugars in corn starch, cassava or sugarcane. To transform corn into plastic, corn kernels are immersed in sulfur dioxide and hot water, where its components break down into starch, protein, and fibre. The kernels are then ground and the corn oil is separated from the starch. The starch is comprised of long chains of carbon molecules, similar to the carbon chains in plastic from fossil fuels. Some citric acids are mixed in to form a long-chain polymer, which becomes the building block for plastic. Minnesota-based NatureWorks is one of the largest companies producing PLA under the brand name Ingeo. (Source: Phys.org)
Currently PLA cannot be composted in a garden compost heap or bin and so it needs to be composted in an industrial composter, which can reach higher temperatures. For this reason you’ll need to put it in your brown (food) bin and NOT your garden compost bin / heap.
It is worth noting that a study in 2019 concluded that ‘all PLA products induced strong baseline toxicity similar to PVC and PUR. This demonstrates that this bio-based and biodegradable material, despite being marketed as better alternative, is not necessarily safer than conventional plastics‘
Is ‘plastic-free’ really ‘plastic-free’?
Well that depends on how to define plastic. Apparently it’s not as cut and dried as one might expect
The dictionary defines plastic as ‘a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers such as polyethylene, PVC, nylon, etc., that can be moulded into shape while soft, and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form.’
Seems straight forward until you start examining the term ‘organic polymers’. As this article by the BBC News explains natural rubber technically falls into the category of organic polymer.
If you define plastic as materials derived from gas and oil, then yes, you can get plastic-free single-use tea bags. If you define any polymer based material as plastic, even if it’s derived from plants, then you cannot currently get plastic-free single-use tea-bags.
You may have noticed that I slipped in the term single-use there, that’s because reusable fabric tea-bags are available, and are completely plastic-free. I got mine in the Dublin Food Co-op, but you can also get them in Pax Wholefoods.
WRAP, the charity behind the UK Plastics Pact, would prefer if companies using PLA didn’t use the term plastic-free as they consider plant-based plastics just that, plastic, and feel that using the term ‘plastic-free’ when referring to them could be misleading to customers. This is at odds with the work of the communication strategists A Plastic Planet, which actually certifies products containing bio-plastic as plastic-free.
Are bio-plastics better than fossil fuel plastics?
Well that depends. I’m not a fan of biodegradable/ compostable plastic at all, and I explain why in my aptly titled article Why I don’t like Biodegradable / Compostable Plastics,
But I think asking if compostable bio-plastics are better than non-compostable fossil fuel plastic is the wrong question. They’re both single-use, which is a huge waste of resources, so I suggest the we change the question to – Are single-use tea bags better than reusable options?
What do you think I’m going to say in response to this?
Of course they’re not.
The Better Option
In my house we use metal tea diffuser spoons and the aforementioned reusable fabric tea bags and we don’t miss single-use tea bags one jot!
If you’re interested in giving loose tea a go then check out the companies below. Along with the bigger brands mentioned further down, these guys have all the loose tea and tea accessories you heart could desire;
- Intelligent Tea sells caffeine-free tea made from wild plants and herbs grown without chemicals in Ireland and Europe. You can buy their tea online, in many artisan food shops and package free from Bi Urban in D7
- Wall & Keogh, online, in D2 and through zero waste stores
- Gurmans, online and in Dublin 2
- Mrs Doyle’s Tea Shop, online and Kilkenny shops. They have some organic blends
- Clement and Pekoe, online, D2
- Joy of Cha, online and D2
- McCabe’s Coffee, online and Wicklow
- Darboven, online and in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin where you can buy some organic and certified Fairtrade loose tea.
- The Three Spoons, online and in Cork
- Loose Leaf, online and in Cork
- Cupan Tae, online and Galway
- Kardemumma Tea & Coffee, Sligo
- Camilla’s Tea Emporium, online
- Niks Tea, online and in supermarkets
PLA Tea Bag Brands
If you’re wedded to single-use tea bags, then here is some info on some brands selling PLA tea bags in Ireland.
Based in Galway Solaris Botanicals is a certified vegan and organic brand of tea using herbs grown in Ireland. All of their packaging and silken tea – made from non-GMO PLA – are 100% biodegradable. You can buy from their website and package-free from Pax Wholefoods in Westport
Lilys Tea is an Irish brand offering organic and non-organic tea, loose and in biodegradable tea bags. Unfortunately they don’t offer any additional information on their packaging on their website. Their products are available online and in Supervalu stores.
Barry’s Tea is an independent family-owned Irish company selling tea sourced from government agencies and Rainforest Alliance Certified farms, which they blend, produce, and distribute from their factory in Ireland. They state that 95 % of their tea is bought from government agencies because these agencies represent small farmers and help them get the best possible price for their tea. The tea bags in their 80s and 160s boxes are biodegradable and they hope for all of them to be biodegradable within the next 6 months. The boxes their tea bags come in are recyclable and printed with vegetable-based inks.
Suki Tea is based in Belfast and sells a range of teas, some of which are certified Fairtrade, or organic or Rainforest Alliance, with two of their teas having all three accreditations. Their pyramid tea bags are made from paper, yarn and PLA, but the envelopes the tea bags come in are lined with plastic and aren’t listed as recyclable on the website. The clear bags that are inside their retail boxes is made from Natureflex and is suitable for home composting. Their retail boxes are printed locally in Northern Ireland and made from FSC or PEFC certified cardboard, and are either pre-printed using vegetable-based inks or use a paper-based label. Their food service bags will compost industrially in just 12 weeks and at home in 12 – 26 weeks. They’re working to change the sticker on these bags to one that is also compostable because currently it’s isn’t. They also sell tea in reusable and recyclable metal caddies.
I couldn’t find any info on Robert Roberts, originally an Irish brand now owned by the multinational company Valeo Foods.
Bewley’s had very little to say about sustainability or ethics on it’s website, with no mention of Fairtrade, organic or packaging, although I did spot one box of 80 tea bags that was labelled as Fairtrade.
Clipper is a brand of organic, non-GMO tea available in most supermarkets, with most of their blends certified as Fairtrade certified. If you’re a fan of decaffeinated tea then you’ll be happy to know that Clipper only use CO2 to remove the caffeine and not chemical strippers used by other brands. They use non-GMO corn-based, unbleached PLA in their tea bags. Some of their tea also comes individually wrapped in a recyclable envelope coated in plastic to allow it to be sealed. They are working on replacing the non-recyclable / compostable foil bag in some of their boxes with a compostable alternative.
Tea Pigs is a B Corp based in the UK with only one Rainforest Alliance certified product; their English breakfast tea. Their tea bags are made from non-GMO corn-based PLA starch and come in compostable Naturflex bags that can be composted at home or industrially, which in turn are inside recyclable FSC certified cardboard boxes, printed with vegetable ink. At the moment their envelopes are a paper / plastic composite, which aren’t currently recyclable. The company makes a donation to the Point Foundation, a charity that supports support orphans and vulnerable young people, with every pack of everyday brew they sell. They also run their own charitable schemes, which you can read about here, and they’re members of the Ethical Tea Partnership.
Yorkshire tea is a family run business in the UK, offering certified carbon neutral tea that is either Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance certified certified. They have started to switch to teabags made from PLA and hope to have completed the move by June 2021. Currently their 240 teabag boxes are all PLA. They have been awarded Sustainable Standards Setter by the Rainforest Alliance and earned a Royal Warrant, as an official supplier to the Prince of Wales. They are founding members of the Ethical Tea Partnership, run a tree planting charity and a local reuse store for second-hand goods, as well as matching funds raised for charity by staff.
UK based Tetley source all their tea from Rainforest Alliance certified farms and are one of the founding member of the Ethical Tea Partnership. Currently their tea bags still contain fossil fuel derived plastic but they say they’re trailing biodegradable alternatives are hoping to switch soon. Even though their soft packs are said to create less transport carbon emissions than cartons, they aren’t currently recyclable; something the company is planning to address. They company also works with Unicef UK, to help support young children from 0-5 years old in tea growing regions in Malawi.
Twinings offer tea loose and in bags sourced from Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance certified farms. According to the company more than 90% of their packaging is recyclable and some of their tag tea bags and premium and hot and cold mesh bags are already biodegradable in industrial composters. They have started the process of changing their traditional tea-bags to be ones that can be compostable in industrial composters, and are on the search to find biodegradable tea-bags suitable for home composting. The bags inside their cartons aren’t currently recyclable or compostable, and neither are the individual tea sachets. The plastic container their cold-infused jar comes in is recyclable. The company carry out socially beneficial programmes through it’s Sourced with Care scheme.
Lyons Tea, owned by Unilever, sells Rainforest Alliance certified tea in tea bags that they say can be home composted. I’ve emailed them to ask them for proof of this claim but haven’t heard back from them yet. I’ll update this section when I do.
Pukka is a B corp, also owned by Unilever, offering certified organic tea that is certified by Fair for Life and Fair Wild. Their tea bags are made from natural abaca (a type of banana), wood pulps and plant cellulose fibres, stitched together with organic cotton. The tea bag strings are also made from 100% organic, non-GMO cotton. The company says that their tea bags can be home composted and that they’re applying for a composting certificate to prove this. The individual tea bags are individually wrapped in FSC certified paper envelopes, with a very thin coating of plastic that is free from BPA and PVC, and is recyclable in your green bin. Their boxes are made from FSC certified cardboard and printed with vegetable-based inks, also recyclable in the green bin. The company are also members of 1% for the planet, which means they donate 1% of their sales to environmental charities. The company also pay the living wage as a minimum and all placements, interns and assignments are paid, and they give money toward staff for well-being activities. Unilever is a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership.
PJ tips is another Unilever company offering Rainforest Alliance certified tea, this time in biodegradable bio-plastic tea bags that can be industrially composted. They are also trialling removing the plastic wrapper on their PEFC certified card boxes. Their Kericho tea estate uses mostly renewable electricity (over 96%) and their Manchester factory is carbon neutral and uses 100% renewable energy. In a move towards transparency they published a full list of their tea suppliers in 2019. According to their website their parent company, Unilever, planted 1.3 million trees across their Kenya estates, and donated a further 30,000 indigenous trees to local communities and institutions. Unilever is a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership and they support the endangered Colobus monkey sanctuary in Kenya.
- 95% of Lidl’s tea is sustainably sourced through Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance certified farms,. but no mention of packaging or tea bags.
- There was no information on Aldi’s website about their tea at all
- Supervalu’s reserve blend is Fairtrade, but no mention of biodegradable tea bags on their website
Phew after all that I need a brew!