PLASTIC FREE HOME: Are your tea bags full of plastic?

plastic free tea bags
PG Tips is now starting to selll biodegradable tea bags Picture: Phil Creighton
David Lamont
David Lamont

Many of us would be forgiven for assuming that tea bags have long been biodegradable and something that we could throw in our compost bins at home but even now this isn’t always the case.

With tea bags on average containing 20-25% plastic (which is primarily used to seal the bags) and given that in the UK we drink over 60 billion cups of tea annually, that’s a lot of unnecessary and environmentally damaging plastic.

In 2018, a UK-wide petition launched by Michael Armitage from Wrexham, and directed at PG Tips attracted nearly 200,000 signatures and has helped to encourage parent company Unilever to bring about a change. At the time, the company promised to remove plastic from its tea bags by the end of 2018, replacing it with a plant-based, renewable and biodegradable alternative. 

Some brands have or are working towards switching to bio-plastics like Polylactic Acid (PLA), derived from renewable resources like corn starch or sugar cane instead of oil. PLA will decompose into carbon dioxide and water in a “controlled composting environment” in fewer than 90 days, technically making it biodegradable in specific conditions. 

If such plastics reach the environment, they will behave very similarly to normal plastics, breaking down over potentially hundreds of years into harmful microplastics and presenting a danger to marine life. So, is it preferable to oil-based plastics? Yes. Is it an ideal or perfect solution? Not at all.

We take an up-to-date look at how the UK’s leading tea bag brands are faring on their quest to become plastic free and more environmentally friendly. 

What are the UK’s top tea brands? *

  1. Twinings
  2. PG Tips
  3. Yorkshire Tea
  4. Tetley
  5. Pukka
  6. Clipper

*Annual sales data compiled by Nielsen for The Grocer

What are they saying?

BrandPlastic Free? *Dispose ofSummary
TwiningsNoGeneral waste binTea bags contain oil-derived plastic. From January 2020, they will instead be made from plant-based bioplastic and can be placed in food waste.
PG TipsNoGeneral waste binSays: “we’re committed to moving all of our pyramid® bags to a new fully biodegradable, plant-based material.” No date is given.” However, plastic-free packets are now starting to appear in the shops – as and when that happens, they can be placed in food waste.
Yorkshire TeaNoGeneral waste bin, but the new bag can go in food wasteSwitching from oil-based plastic to bio-plastic PLA to seal its bags. Says it “hopes to go completely plastic free” in the future.
TetleyNoGeneral waste binSays that each tea bag contains a minimal (0.4g) of plastic but that it hopes to introduce fully biodegradable bags in 2020. These will likely contain bioplastics but can then be placed in food waste.
PukkaYesHome compost or food wasteThe only brand to say that it uses organic cotton to seal its bags, in what it labels a “more costly and complex process”.
ClipperNoGeneral waste binUses “plastic free” on its packaging but the bags contain a “renewable, plant-based bio-polymer”.  In other words, bioplastic. 

* Applies to the brand’s standard tea bags.

What are the alternatives?

The most obvious option is to switch to loose leaf tea, ideally from a brand that uses plastic free and compostable or recyclable packaging. 

Loose leaf tea is biodegradable and home compostable and often considered to be higher quality, fresher and better tasting. 

Other tea bag brands worth exploring, that are plastic free, include Brew Tea Co (which uses NatureFlex™, a biodegradable and compostable option made from natural, renewable materials such as wood pulp) and Hampstead Tea (which uses a compostable and biodegraable GM-free sugar starch).

You can find us on Facebook by searching for Plastic Free Home or at http://www.facebook.com/plasticfreehomeuk.

For more tips and advice, join the online group at www.facebook.com/plasticfreehomeuk

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