Updated: Aug 5, 2020
Everyone loves a cup of tea, don't they? Whether it be a fragrant earl grey, herbal infusion or a strong builder's brew, tea is the nation's favourite drink. But are we getting more than refreshing leaves along with each cup?
As if worrying about the plastic packaging on the outside of our food wasn't enough, we now know we also need to be concerned about what's on the inside.
Of the 165 million cups of tea drunk in the UK each day, 96% are estimated to be made from teabags. Some manufacturers say that up to 25% of each bag is made from synthetics such as PVC, nylon and polypropylene, a material used to make carpets among other things!
This plastic is mainly used to seal the bags, to stop the contents spilling out into the cup, but there are other methods. Pukka Herbs use a cotton string and stitching process, others use alternative heat sealing. and folding techniques, but the many are still using synthetic materials in some form or another.
And this isn't the only use of plastic in bags. Many manufacturers also produce teabags with fine plastic mesh woven into them for extra strength and structure, the overall synthetic content can then be as high as 30% of the overall bag.
All this plastic means teabags don't fully biodegrade so can't be safely recycled or composted domestically. They then go into landfill and contribute around 2400 tonnes of pollution a year in the UK alone. That's an awful lot of avoidable waste from a product that in itself, is entirely natural.
Mesh reinforced bags are pretty much un-compostable and create another problem. When consumers try to put them in compost bins they unwittingly add toxic and hazardous chemicals to the soil in the form of non-biodegradable micro-plastics that stay around for a very long time. If you want the benefits of the nutrients from your tea on your garden the best way is to break open the used bag and tip it directly on to the soil.
But what is all this plastic doing to our health?
Polypropylene is carcinogenic but tea companies claim there are no known risks associated with its use in tea production. as they use the food-grade polyethylene terephthalate (PET)..
However in studies involving water bottles made from PET there was significant leaching of hormone-like chemicals, reported, and that was seen in liquid at room temperatures - steeping bags in boiling water could cause possibly even higher levels to escape..
Many popular teabags contain not just plastics but also poisonous chemicals such as epichlorophydrin, widely used as a strengthening agent for the bags themselves, This chemical is highly toxic and is known to damage the immune system and cause infertility as well as being carcinogenic to animals.
Many of the main brands take consumer concerns seriously and claim to be gradually making the change to non-bleached and plastic-free teabags, some having already committed to being 100% plastic-free in the very near future, but in the meantime, what to do?
The simple answer is loose leaves. They're generally more economical and often taste nicer too. Comparing 80 teabags (or 232g) of a well-known brand with a 250g packet of their loose tea, (said to make the equivalent 80 cups), the price difference is 90p.
Not only that but there's clearly more in the loose packet and less waste as you use exactly how much you need for your own personal strength of flavour preference.
Tea bags can be bigger money makers for companies than loose leaves as they generally use poorer quality leaves, often the smaller, dust-like pieces left over from sorting the higher grade leaves. Being small, these are better suited to the restricted space of a bag.
Not only is leaf quality an issue but using loose tea and brewing in a pot allows the leaves to circulate and have more opportunity to release more of their fuller flavour.
Although this is an ever-evolving issue and many of the major, as well as smaller brands vow to reduce and eventually eliminate plastic completely, for the time being it may be wise to shop cautiously to avoid unwittingly ingesting more plastic.
If you don't fancy a return to the tea strainer try buying these brands that don't use any plastic in their bags* and many use no plastic in their packaging either:
Pukka Herbs - all teas
Tea Pigs - temple boxes and tins only
PG Tips - now all tea packets
Yogi Tea - bags but not all packaging
The Duchy range - from Waitrose
Clipper Organic - everyday teabags
Aldi Speciality range
Twinings - loose leaf pyramid bags
Tetley - catering bags with string
Sainsburys - Taste the DIfference and Herbal Infusions ranges
We Are Tea - English Breakfast tea
Typhoo - string and tag bags only
PG tips pyramid bags **
(** contain bio-plastic, a substance made from cornstarch or other vegetable material. However they do not fully biodegrade and are not compostable).
As a final note, Yorkshire tea, currently the nation's favourite brand, are taking big steps to make their tea bags completely plastic-free by replacing the existing content with a plant-based 'plastic' PLA.
Earlier this year they quoted ' … by the end of April 2020, we reckon we’ll have made about 360 million tea bags with the new material. If all goes well, about 20% of the UK Yorkshire Tea bags we make from that point will be PLA. That should be up to 50% by the end of June, and by January 2021 all UK Yorkshire Tea, Yorkshire Gold, Yorkshire Tea Decaf and Yorkshire Tea for Hard Water will have switched.'
*All suggested products are listed for informative purposes only. We are not affiliated with or sponsored by any of the companies or websites mentioned.