The UK is a nation of tea drinkers, in fact, tea.co.uk estimate that we drink about 100 million cups per day! But it turns out that many of these popular brands of tea actually use plastic within the teabags, which means their teabags are not compostable at home.
So even though your teabag looks and feels like it can be put in the compost or food waste bin, the chances are it will contain plastic, and should go in the refuse.
Did Teabags always contain plastic?
The first teabag was patented in 1903 by Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren, you can even see the original patent here! The original patent designed teabags to be handwoven out of cotton, however teabags were later redesigned in the 1930s to be made out of filter paper that was heat sealed.
This modern teabag was first brought to the UK by Tetley in 1953, and was the first type of teabag to contain plastic.
Why Do Teabags Contain Plastic?
Heat sealable teabags were invented in the 30’s to stop them from breaking apart after steeping in the hot water. This meant adding polypropylene, commonly produced plastic with a high melting point, into the teabags.
You might be wondering why there is a need for plastic to be found in teabags? Well, plastic (polypropylene to be exact) is added to the paper teabag to help heat seal them during manufacture.
Heat sealing the bags like this means that the teabags won’t come open in the box, or in your cup. It also means that these tea bags aren’t 100% biodegradable. This is a problem in that those tea bags you are composting are leaving bits of microplastic in the soil.
Why are plastic tea bags bad?
A recent study has shown that steeping a plastic-based teabags releases around 11.6 billion microplastics into a single cup of tea (1)! Scientists are beginning to learn more about how microplastics are affecting human and animal life, as explained in this article by Nature.
The main problem with microplastics is that they do not breakdown into harmless particles, and are being found in large quantities in marine life, and eventually the food and drink that we eat.
The most environmentally friendly way to drink tea
The most most environmentally friendly alternative to using teabags is to use loose leaf tea and a strainer. You can find loose leaf tea in most supermarkets, and then once you’ve steeped as much as you can from them, you can simply put the tea leaves in the food waste bin or your home compost.
But, like me, you may not want to spend the added time steeping loose leaf tea and would rather the convenience of the humble teabag without the plastic waste. Fortunately, there are companies that are making efforts to remove plastic from their teabags
PLA in Tea bags
With consumers becoming more eco-conscious, brands, including tea producers, are taking steps to make their products appeal to people who want to shop more sustainably. The solution by many tea brands looking to promote their corporate social responsibility was to use a type of bioplastic called polylactic acid (PLA) to replace the original plastic design.
PLA is known as a bioplastic because it is made from plant materials such as corn sugar or sugar cane. It is considered as more environmentally-friendly than traditional petroleum-based plastic as it requires less energy to produce. It is also technically biodegradable under international standards, however, it can only degrade under industrial composting conditions.
Which means you cannot compost tea bags with PLA in at home, even if the packaging labels the teabag as ‘biodegradable’. You can cut open the bag and put the tea leaves in your compost and put the bag in the landfill bin.
Just because something is biodegradable, doesn’t mean it is compostable! Learn more about the difference between biodegradable and compostable.
Is using PLA greenwashing?
Many spokespeople call the use of PLA in items like teabags as an act of greenwashing– a term given for marketing tactics that are used to persuade the public that an organisation is aiming to be environmentally friendly.
Research shows that unless PLA-based items are composted industrially, it is estimated that it would take over 30 years for PLA to biodegrade in soil (2). Like traditional plastic PLA will not biodegrade in the ocean.
Which teas can you compost at home?
So we’ve established that it can in fact be difficult to know which brands actually produce plastic-free tea bags, so we’ve researched the UK’s most popular tea brands to show you that can be composted at home.
|Teabag brand||Teabag Material||Are They Compostable?||Food Waste Bin|
|Hampstead Tea||Paper (wood pulp, plant cellulose fibres) & organic cotton stitch||Yes||Yes|
|Neal’s Yard Herbal Tea||Abaca & organic cotton stitch||Yes||Yes|
|Pukka||Paper (wood pulp, abaca, plant cellulose fibres) & organic cotton stitch||Yes||Yes|
|Whittard of Chelsea||Did not confirm||Yes||Yes|
|Brew Tea Co. Teabags||PLA||No||Yes|
|We Are Tea||PLA||No||Yes|
|Twinings Standard||Paper and cellulose binder, plastic||No||No|
What the brands say
Some of above suppliers are very transparent about what their teabags are made from, and if they are biodegradable or ideally compostable. I have reached out to several of the brands to find out more from the brands that are more vague about their products.
I am still awaiting responses from Tetley. In time, I will update this list with the non-branded supermarket tea products!
Whittard of Chelsea
Whittard of Chelsea responded to my questions stating:
We have recently made the switch to fully compostable teabags for both our Traditional and Tag & Envelope Teabags. Both our Traditional Teabags and Tag & Envelope Teabags are 100% compostable and biodegradable.Customer Service Advisor at Whittard of Chelsea
In a separate response, Whittard of Chelsea confirmed that their teabags are compostable at home. However, they did not disclose what their teabags are made out of.
The response from Typhoo was:
Although the tea bag filter paper is not suitable to be put in the garden compost, it is industrial compostable and can be put in the food waste bin which is collected by your local council.Consumer Relations Advisor 1 at Typhoo Tea
In a separate email from another response, they stated:
With regards to composting, the current filter paper used to make our tea bags are not entirely suitable for composting due to the polymer content. […] We are currently working on a fully compostable tea bag and we do not have a current timescale but, it should be on the shop shelves very soon. I’m afraid that we do not have an exact timescale for when this will be rolled out across shop shelves, we are working hard on an alternative solution to be available as soon as possible.Consumer Relations Advisor 2 at Typhoo Tea
There was no mention of what the teabags are currently made from, other than a mention of the “polymer content”. It is good to note that they are working on a fully compostable tea bag.
Tetley were the last company to reply to me, their response was that:
The advice on tea bags from Recycle Now is that tea bags can be put out for your roadside food collection scheme if you have one.
Currently our tea bags contain a small amount of plastic material (0.04g per bag) so that they can be heat sealed to keep the tea firmly in the bag. Being able to produce tea bags that are polypropylene free is a key priority as part of our comprehensive ethical and sustainability programme and our commitment to The UK Plastic Pact.Consumer Relations Advisor at Tetley
They are honest about using a small amount of plastic in their teabags and that they are working to do to remove it from their teabags. However it is important to note that while they quote Recycle Now that teabags can go in the food waste bin, you should be aware that the small amount of polypropylene can be toxic when it breaks down.
Good Earth very quickly responded to me stating:
Or teabags are completely plastic free – they are fusion bags made from a corn-starch compound. They are industrially compostable as well as totally biodegradable. They can be put in your food waste bin at home no problem.Consumer Relations Advisor at Good Earth
The Most Eco-Friendly Tea Brands
Now that we know which teabags are able to be composted and which are to be put in the food waste bin, if you have one. So now we can attempt to rank these tea brands, to determine which are the most eco-conscious!
This traditional breakfast tea is made from a blend of leaves from India and Africa.
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Why its a good pick
- Awarded Best Non-Alcoholic Drink at BOOM (Best of the Organic Market) Awards 2021
This breakfast tea is made from a blend of Indian tea leaves .
Why its a good pick
- Pukka are a certified B Corp
- Pukka are certified by the Soil Association
Omar is a digital marketer by day, and is writing like the world depends on it for Pick Ethical at night. He has a passion for hiking, his dog Pepper, and content marketing.