Millions of people around the world enjoy drinking tea every day. They may drink it purely for flavor or its calming, comforting, invigorating, or health benefits. But you might be surprised to learn that tea may have a sinister side.
The very thing that prevents some tea bags from disintegrating in boiling water is what makes them potentially toxic as well as non-biodegradable. Yep, plastic rears its ugly head again. Once you get over the shock that your tea bag may contain plastic, you must also come to terms with the possibility that the wrappings, tiny staples that attach the strings to the tea bags, and even the glue that seals otherwise benign paper tea bags make them non-recyclable as well as non-compostable. The good news is that many companies are evolving away from plastic and towards sustainable packaging.
Where is the plastic?
The University of East Anglia conducted experiments in which tea bags from several big brands of tea, including Twining’s, Tetley, and Yorkshire, were soaked in a copper ammonia solution. After five days, plastic “skeletons” of the tea bags remained. The type of plastic found was polypropylene, a soft-flexible thermoplastic that is sold at low cost but in high volume and can be molded into shapes like straws, yogurt cups, medicine bottles, and countless other items. The toxicity of polypropylene is lower than other plastics because it does not contain BPA (also known as bisphenol A), a hormone disrupter made of synthetic estrogen. Although polypropylene products can be recycled (number 5) and are considered relatively safe as plastics go, there are unknown chemicals found in all plastics that have been proven to contribute to some cancers. Polypropylene is FDA approved for food contact and has a high heat tolerance, so it’s often used for microwavable food containers. This thermoplastic is what keeps your tea bag intact when you pour hot water over it. But just because it can be heated doesn’t mean it should be heated. While polypropylene may be a better alternative to other plastics, it’s best to avoid consuming plastic with your food and beverages whenever possible.
The Journal of Environmental Science and Technology published a study in which scientists found that just one plastic tea bag released around 11.6 billion micro plastics and 3.1 billion smaller nanoplastic particles into the tea cup, which in turn wound up in the drinker’s digestive system.
Those fancy and often more expensive teabags that look like pyramids (also called tea temples) may look appealing, but the material is often made of nylon, another type of plastic. Some companies have replaced the plastic in both pyramids and regular shaped tea bags with a bi-product of cornstarch (also known as soilon).
By accidentally adding non-biodegradable materials to your compost bin, you are unwittingly putting chemicals back into the food chain, where plants can absorb them as they grow. Don’t fall prey to the “green washing” of companies that give the impression they are healthy and natural. Arm yourself with information and shop accordingly.
American brands of tea bags that DON’T contain plastic:
Republic of Tea
American brands of tea bags that DO contain plastic:
Mighty Leaf Tea (owned by Peet’s)
The popular UK brand PG Tips claims they are the first major black tea brand to switch to fully biodegradable packaging and tea bags made from corn starch, and this saves the equivalent weight of 66 million plastic bags every year.
Consider Loose Leaf Tea!
According to an article in Country Living, 96% of tea drinkers choose tea bags over loose leaf tea, but considering the drawbacks of tea bags when it comes to plastic and non-biodegradable features, it might be worth switching over to loose leaf tea. Of course you can order loose leaf tea from online companies like TheTeaSpot.com, but extra points are given for organic and locally made tea purchased at farmers’ markets! Loose-leaf tea requires the extra step of filtering out tea leaves before drinking, but there is a host of paraphernalia out there, such as these fillable tea filter bags and this mesh infuser ball, and you may even enjoy taking the extra bit of time to create your very own calming tea ritual, especially during the winter months and periods of isolation at home.
Photo by Svitlana on Unsplash