plastic free tea bags in the uk

The best plastic-free tea bags update March 2020

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Background

This is the third update to an article I first posted in September 2019. It was updated in November 2019, again in January 2020 and this update is being made on 11th March 2020. In my first post about plastic in tea bags, I shared my shock at finding out that most tea bags are more than just tea and paper: they contain plastic too. In that post, I listed the responses given to the question “when will your tea bags become plastic-free?” by the biggest brands in the UK, that is, PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea and Tetley. The answer when this article was first published in September 2019 was mostly “we’re working on it”.

The great news in the past couple of days is that Yorkshire Tea which, at the end of last year, overtook PG Tips as the most popular brand in the UK has announced that they are well on the way to switching away from plastic completely. Instead, their tea bags are going to be made of a plant-based “plastic” called PLA. An update on their website posted on 9th March states:

… by the end of April, 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.

As of 13th January 2020, PG Tips completely switched its production to plant-based materials. There are still some of the older tea bags on the shelves around the world but they’ve already produced 4 billion plastic-free tea bags so I’ve added them to my list of plastic-free tea bags below. As one of the biggest producers of tea bags in the world, this is fantastic news for the tea drinker.

This is, obviously, fantastic news and means that the UK’s biggest two tea bag manufacturers are going to be plastic-free in the not too distant future. The third biggest tea company in the UK, Tetley, are still apparently content to be “99% plastic-free”. Not good enough, when the other big producers can manage to switch. This article is aimed at readers in the UK because all the companies listed here import tea into the UK. Although I encourage you to seek out plastic-free tea bag vendors in your own country in order to reduce food miles, all these companies either will either to anywhere in the world, or list their products on Amazon for an international audience.

The situation

As it stands (September 2019), around 96% of the tea bags used in the UK contain non-biodegradable polypropylene fibres woven into the fabric of the bag, which allows them to be sealed by heat. Polypropylene is a highly persistent plastic that simply does not break down so you shouldn’t put it on your home compost heap unless you plan to sieve the compost before use. Official guidance says that, despite this, all tea bags should be put in your council’s food waste bin where they will then be sent for commercial composting or anaerobic digestion.

Unfortunately, this means that an increasing amount of these polypropylene fibres are ending up in the agricultural compost in which our food is grown. A team at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh found a variety of microplastic in all the sites they tested. So far they have only tested three sites, and our knowledge of the effect of microplastics in the soil is not yet as advanced as our knowledge about microplastics in our seas and oceans but it seems likely that the food we grow and eat is almost certainly contaminated with microplastics with as yet unknown effects on our health and the health of our wildlife.

Over the last two months the news, first brought to wide attention by New Scientist magazine in September 2019, that a Canadian team found that steeping a plastic tea bag at a brewing temperature of 95°C releases around 11.6 billion microplastics has been carried by nearly all major news outlets in the English-speaking world [1]. This article, along with many of the others who reported on this story, urged tea drinkers to avoid plastic tea bags. Before we start though, we need to understand the following terms:

Terminology: “Biodegradable” vs. “Industrial Compostable” vs. “Home Compostable”

Biodegradable just means that the material will break down under certain conditions but can take decades to do so. It will break down more quickly than “ordinary” plastics but in many conditions won’t break down at all so, from the point of view of our wild and marine life, that’s really not good news. Don’t expect something that says “biodegradable” to be broken down on your home compost heap. Also, we have to be wary of the term “compostable” because it doesn’t necessarily mean compostable by you and me in our back gardens.

Many products labelled “compostable” refer to industrial conditions which operate with huge volumes and at high temperatures to achieve a relatively quick breakdown of the material into is natural components. If your council operates a food waste bin collection system, this is what happens to it.

Home compostable” means that you can safely put it on your home compost heap and expect it to break down after around ninety days, depending on what else you put on your compost heap, weather conditions, whether it’s covered or open and so on.

Jump to the list of plastic-free tea bag suppliers

Solving the plastic in tea bags problem

One answer, of course, is to switch to loose leaf tea and since finding out about the plastic in the big brands of tea bag I have treated myself to an infuser tea pot and am drinking a lot more loose leaf tea. However, there is more to consider than just the tea bag itself. Some brands of loose tea and even plastic-free tea bags come packaged in, you guessed it, plastic, which is often not even recyclable so has to go to landfill (and eventually the ocean). So as well as considering the plastic associated with the tea bag, I’ve looked at the packaging as well.

Alternatives to plastic in the tea bag itself

Most of these plastic-free tea bags are made from soilon, a by-product of cornstarch that is biodegradable and industrial compostable. The bags are sealed using ultrasound which eliminates the need for polypropylene. This material will take at least 18 months to home compost. If, like me, you have more than one compost bin, or you just don’t go through compost that quickly, then it’s okay to home compost soilon but if you’re not sure, it should go in your food waste bin.

Other alternatives are a by-product of maize starch, or abaca plants, a type of banana. Again, these will only compost slowly on a home compost heap. One company, Hampstead Tea, is using a by-product of sugar starch to make its tea bags and these will turn into compost at home in 90 days.

Alternatives to plastic for packaging

Many of the brands below are making use of something called Nature-Flex to package their tea bags (and their loose leaf tea). This looks and feels like plastic but is made from wood pulp and is home compostable, taking between three and six months to break down. Outer boxes made from paper and cardboard can, unless coated with plastic, be recycled.

What else to look for when buying tea

With some of these manufacturers, especially the larger ones, there is a difference between the manufacturing process and therefore the plastic content of different versions of their product. Twinings, for example, uses plastic-containing glue in its regular tea bags but not in its tea pyramids.

Bleaching: bleach is bad for the environment, full stop. If you put bleached “paper” tea bags on your home compost heap, you’re asking for trouble. None of the brands in this list is bleached.

Most of the suppliers on this list offer many other types of tea as well as the one listed here, so if you’re looking for a plastic-free single-origin, green or chai tea, this list is a really good starting point. So, who meets this set of conditions?

The list of completely plastic-free tea bags made by UK companies

#1 Hampstead Tea: Strong English Breakfast

Hampstead Tea ticks every box when it comes to sustainability: its products are 100% organic, biodynamic and fairly traded. The tea pyramids are made from GM-free sugar starch and are stitched, not glued, and are therefore fully compostable at home.  There is no string, tags or labels to complicate the composting process and they claim that a tea bag will turn into compost in 91 days. They come wrapped in NatureFlex which is fully compostable at home. A great way to get the convenience of a tea bag without harming the planet.

Organic: yes

Ethical tea partnership member: Yes

Tea bag: made from unbleached cornstarch; home compostable

Inner packaging: Nature-flex; home compostable

Outer packaging: recyclable cardboard

#2 Abel & Cole: English Breakfast

abel and cole english breakfast tea Another company that are really going all out when it comes to reducing plastic in everything they do is Abel & Cole. One of the country’s first and now biggest organic produce companies they are striving to use as little plastic as possible in all their grocery and household products, and their tea is no exception. It is packaged in a brown paper bag outer with a Nature-flex inner lining and seal. The bags themselves are made from unbleached soilon pyramids. Their organic recipe boxes are amazing too.

Organic: yes

Ethical tea partnership member: Yes

Tea bag: unbleached soilon; industrial compostable

Inner packaging: Nature-flex; home compostable

Outer packaging: recyclable cardboard

#3 We Are Tea: English Breakfast

Selling exclusively whole-leaf tea, We Are Tea made the move to corn starch (soilon) tea bags in 2013. They have also moved over to NatureFlex inner packaging too, as well as a recyclable cardboard outer sleeve. The tea bags are untagged, so no string or staples to worry about either.

Organic: no

Ethical tea partnership member: Yes

Tea bag: unbleached soilon; industrial compostable

Inner packaging: Nature-flex; home compostable

Outer packaging: recyclable cardboard

 

#4 Brew Tea Company: English Breakfast

Another company to sell exclusively whole-leaf tea in its tea bags, they are made from soilon. The outer packaging is recyclable cardboard and the inner packaging is NatureFlex.

Organic: no

Ethical tea partnership member: Yes

Tea bag: unbleached soilon; industrial compostable

Inner packaging: Nature-flex; home compostable

Outer packaging: recyclable cardboard

#5 Nemi: English Breakfast

A fairly new entrant to the tea world, Nemi launched in October 2017. The outer packaging is made entirely from Nature-flex so can be composted. Their bags and their loose tea come packaged in attractive sturdy cardboard tubes which can be reused for more tea or upcycled for use as a pen holder or anything else you fancy.

Organic: no

Ethical tea partnership member: Yes

Tea bag: unbleached soilon; industrial compostable

Inner packaging: NaturFlex; home compostable

Outer packaging: NatureFlex; home compostable

#6 Good and Proper Tea: Brockley Breakfast

good and proper teaInitially funded by Kickstarter in 2012, Good and Proper Tea started as a mobile tea bar operating out of a 1974 Citroën-H van. It now operates a Tea Bar in London while the van is still a regular fixture at Brockley Market in south-east London.

Organic: some

Ethical tea partnership member: Yes

Tea bag: unbleached Vegware; industrial compostable

Inner packaging: Nature-flex; home compostable

Outer packaging: Nature-flex; home compostable

#7 Roqberry

Another fairly new player in tea town, Roqberry launched in 2017. They don’t offer your standard black tea: their motto is “blending the rules” by which they mean partnering tea with all sorts of exotic ingredients like raspberry or cocoa nibs. The two most recognizable blends are The Big Smoke (a Lapsang Souchong blend) and Citrus Grey (like Earl Grey with added lemon peel and lavender).

Organic: no

Ethical tea partnership member: Yes

Tea bag: unbleached soilon; industrial compostable

Inner packaging: NaturFlex; home compostable

Outer packaging: NatureFlex; home compostable

#8 PG Tips

A new entry on the list, I’m delighted that PG Tips have made the switch to being plastic-free. As mentioned above, they produce so many tea bags and tea has such a long shelf life that the older style bags will still be on the shelves for some time but all their new bags are plastic free. In addition, they’ve now switched all their packaging, including the film that covers the boxes to a plant-based alternative.

Organic: no

Ethical tea partnership member: Yes

Tea bag: “a plant-based material derived from corn”; home compostable

Inner packaging: recyclable cardboard

Outer packaging: “a plant-based material derived from corn”; home compostable

And the “almost made it on the list, but…” list

The rest of this list contains some of the bigger brands which have made admirable steps in the direction of going plastic-free but there’s still a “but” in each case.

Pukka Herbs Elegant English Breakfast

Pukka has taken a different approach to the others on this list: their bags are individually wrapped in a paper envelope coated in a thin layer of PVC and BPA free plastic to ensure freshness. The company says this can be recycled with paper because it is so thin that it can be recycled paper. Hmm. So, nearly plastic-free, but not quite. However, their teas are all 100% organic, the company is certified carbon neutral and members of a number of fair trade organizations so their overall sustainability credentials are very high indeed.

Clipper Organic Everyday Tea

Clipper has the distinction of being the world’s first fair trade tea and is probably the biggest name in organic tea in the UK. They use unbleached paper, made from a relative of the banana plant, so appear browner in colour than many tea bags and use a sealant made from non-GM plants. It’s one of the cheapest plastic-free teas available but you wouldn’t know from the taste. A good, full-tasting, fresh brew. The “but”? They come sealed in a plasticized foil which, at this time, is not recyclable.

Twinings The Full English Pyramid Bags

While Twinings are still working on making their “ordinary” bags plastic-free, these were launched in 2014 and the bags are made from maize starch. However, each bag has a tag attached which is coated in a thin layer of plastic so while the bag itself is free from plastic, this tag needs to be removed before putting on the compost heap. Argh, so close!

Numi Tea

Not to be confused with “Nemi Tea” above, this is a company founded in 1999 in California but now has a presence on the UK high street too. Founded by a brother and sister, Ahmed Rahim and Reem Hassani, all their tea products are USDA Certified 100% organic and are made from whole leaves. Their tea bags are plastic-free, being made from Manila hemp, and the inner packaging, cardboard, is made from 85% post-consumer waste and printed with soy-based inks. Their website says Numi are working hard to develop an alternative to the plastic outer wrapping. I wish them every success.

Yorkshire Tea

As mentioned above, Yorkshire Tea are in the process to switching over completely to plastic-free tea bags so they’ve earned a place here because they have made big changes to their manufacturing processes in order to become completely plastic-free by the start of 2021. As soon as the switch is complete, they’ll be moved to the list above.

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References

[1] “Plastic tea bags shed billions of microplastic particles into the cup“, New Scientist, 25th September 2019

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23 thoughts on “The best plastic-free tea bags update March 2020”

  1. In my opinion, a loose leaf tea is the savviest alternative. Boil leaves directly or makes your own cloth tea bags. I use fresh hemp leaves to brew a cup of tea. It has a lot of health benefits, and I am utilizing hemp leaves tea for the past year. The taste is excellent, and the aroma is also pleasant.

    Reply
    • Yes, I agree, loose leaf gives a far better
      flavour but there are occasions when a pre-made tea bag is more practical. I’ve not tried hemp leaf tea – is it the same as CBD tea?

      Reply
  2. Wow, as an avid tea drinker I had no idea that there was plastic in tea bags. That’s a real shame. As someone who tries to be at least somewhat of a conservationist this is concerning. All I can think about is what is that doing to our wildlife? (Not to mention what am I ingesting?) Looks like it’s loose leaf tea for me from here on out…

    Reply
    • Yes, not only is it doing untold things (probably not good things) to our environment, that plastic that is in our rivers and soil is almost certainly ending up in us humans too and it’s unlikely that it’s good for us. Loose leaf tea is the most cost-effective option: I’ve switched to that except when I’m in a real hurry and then I reach for a plastic-free tea bag.

      Reply

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