Update: this article was originally published in August 2019, before the publication of a research article by a Canadian team of scientists at McGill University. They found that steeping a tea bag at a brewing temperature of 95°C releases around 11.6 billion particles of microplastic .
This article, along with many of the others who reported on this story, urged tea drinkers to avoid plastic tea bags. By the time of writing this update on 14th November 2019, nearly all major news outlets in the English-speaking world had reported on this story and the story is still appearing as a news item.
If you are looking for a brand of tea bag which is completely plastic-free, see my list of plastic-free tea bags. The “big three” tea companies in the UK, PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea and Tetley have all recently issued updates on the situation regarding plastic in their tea bags: the latest information can be found below.
Plastic in tea bags?
As if living in a rich, developed nation in the 21st century wasn’t already full enough of things to feel guilty about, now there’s a new one to add to the list: plastic in tea bags. Until last week I was blissfully ignorant about the material used to make my tea bags. I thought I was being virtuous by putting them on the compost heap and letting them rot down.
And then I read this article in the Independent by Emma Henderson, published 8th August 2019 and I wanted to cry. The title is “13 best plastic-free tea bags to make your brew better for the planet”, which she starts with:
“You might think tea bags are just simply paper and tea, and that of course they decompose, and that you’re doing your bit by putting them in your home food waste to compost.
But, you’re wrong – unless you use plastic free tea bags, that is.
In actual fact, an estimated 96 per cent of the tea bags we buy contain polypropylene, which is what the tea bags are sealed with, so when you put in the used bags in your food waste, you’re actually putting toxic chemicals into your beautiful compost that will eventually seep into the ground.”
Oh dear. I genuinely had no idea. Maybe because it’s a relatively minor component of my garden compost, along with the grass clippings and old tomato plants and eggshells, I’d been merrily putting my big brand tea bags on the compost heap and had never noticed a problem for my plants. So I am suitably chastised, red-faced, and determined to make a change, either to fully compostable tea bags (note: this is not the same thing as biodegradable or even industrial compostable) or to loose-leaf tea, or a combination of the two. Not for the first time my grandmother was right in her suspicious dismissal of tea bags as vastly inferior to loose tea, and I was wrong. Sorry, Nanny L., you were right all along.
Another, similar list of eleven plastic-free tea bags can be found on the Naturaler website. They too point out:
“Tea bags appear to be made out of paper, but most of them actually contain small amounts of polypropylene, a plastic used to seal the tea bag together.
Polypropylene isn’t biodegradable, so putting tea bags in your compost bin can lead to plastic pollution.”
Plans by the big brands
PG Tips, until recently the UK’s biggest selling brand, contacted me after the publication of the list of plastic-free tea bags, saying “The majority of our tea bags (our 40s, 80s, 160s, and soon 240s boxes) are now fully plant-based and biodegradable.” Their website has also been updated to say that they have already made over one billion of these new tea bags so this is really good news. The same page lists a pledge that by 2020 all their boxes will be free of the plastic wrapping film and they will be using only plant-based packaging.
Yorkshire Tea, which has just recently taken over the top spot in the UK in terms of sales, has the news on its website that they “aim to have replaced the plastic used to seal all their UK tea bags with a renewable, plant-based material by the end of 2019”. They are also signed up to WRAP‘s (Waste and Resources Action Programme) UK’s plastics pact. At the end of October 2019 they released a plastic update in which they say that the first 100 million of their new plastic-free tea bags will be in the shops by the end of November. They plan to remove the plastic wrap from their boxes “in 2021”.
Tetley, the UK’s third-biggest selling brand’s FAQ states: “We’ve worked hard to ensure that our tea bags are 99% biodegradable. However, as a result of the manufacturing process, Tetley tea bags do contain a very small amount of plastic to ensure the bags remain closed for you to enjoy your cup of tea.” So that’s a no, then, and a rather disappointing response, or lack of response, to the problem.
The big brand tea bags are quick and convenient, they taste good and, let’s face it, they’re cheap. But what price do I put on polluting myself and my garden with plastic? I’ve decided to switch to drinking more loose tea, for which I needed a new infuser teapot (any excuse to buy tea gadgets!) plus I’m working my way down this list of plastic-free tea bags available from UK suppliers in order to find my new favourite brand of tea bag.
 “Plastic tea bags shed billions of microplastic particles into the cup“, New Scientist, 25th September 2019