Did you know that most tea bags contain plastic? Manufacturers use plastic, commonly polypropylene, because it is cheap, durable, can withstand heat more, makes tea bags easier to seal, keeps the flavour in and lessens contamination. Tea bags with plastic are also less likely to tear.
On the downside, as is becoming increasingly better known, plastic packaging is from a non-renewable resource, and is very persistent, often not breaking down for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The little bits of plastic, or microplastic, then find their way into oceans, fish, water, soil, food and our bodies.
Apart from devastating environmental effects, such as killing off marine life and ultimately adding to climate change, what are the effects of having this plastic in us? Of over 4000 chemicals potentially present in plastic packaging, 63 have been identified as dangerous to human health because of their potential to disrupt hormones. There is conjecture that toxins and bacteria that may get bound up with microplastics would have an adverse effect on our bodies. The effects of polypropylene are largely unknown, and are admittedly probably more benign on health than many other plastics. While polypropylene can withstand heat better than other plastics, we would take the precautionary approach and not recommend heating this plastic, for example, in a microwave, because of potentially undesirable compounds that could be released.
Three types of tea bags
Tea bags that are heat sealed (crimped along the edges) are more likely to contain plastic.
Tea bags that are made with unbleached paper, folded over and stitched with a string and tag are less likely to contain plastic.
Pyramid tea bags, with the supposed advantage that they have more room for the brewed tea leaves to expand and thus develop more flavour, are usually made of nylon or ‘biodegradable’ corn plastic. While corn plastic is better than plastic made from petrochemicals, it usually requires a commercial compost to break down, may contain questionable additives, and may be made from genetically engineered corn.
Organic tea manufacturers are more likely to be plastic-free, although it strikes me that their packaging standards and practices are still catching up with the present reality of the pervasive pollution of plastic in the world. Dilmah boasts that ‘Our Organic range teabags are entirely free of plastics, including the seal, string, tag and filter paper’. A good start but a pity about the rest of their tea range.
Should we give up drinking tea then? Well documented are various benefits of tea drinking, including multiple antioxidants, polyphenols, tannins and various minerals that help improve our gut microbiome, aid in weight loss, regulate blood sugar, improve mental focus and energy levels and fight free radicals. With its lower caffeine content, tea is also gentler on our bodies than coffee. In addition to black, green and white teas from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) there are of course many different herb teas with numerous health benefits.
The obvious solution is to drink loose-leaf tea, whether tea or herb tea, which is not only cheaper but also more flavoursome. Some have long argued that tea bags are made with the smaller, less desirable bits of tea or herbs. Don from China Life in his video (details below) argues convincingly against using tea bags, pyramids and even tea balls. He gives helpful advice about brewing different types of tea, distinguishing between the Gong Fu and Western styles of brewing. An important point to add is that if we buy organic tea we are supporting a system that is less likely to pollute the environment.
Organic tea bags
Here are a few, selected organic tea bags available in New Zealand, roughly in order of desirability. ‘Envelope’ is the packaging around individually wrapped tea bags. Can you add to this list, by writing to manufacturers of your favourite tea bags?
Higher Living: tea bags unbleached, no plastic. New stocks of envelopes now plastic-free.
Clipper: tea bags unbleached, no plastic. Envelopes have plastic. Looking for alternatives.
Pukka: tea bags no plastic, folded over with organic string. Envelopes have plastic. Recently reduced the amount of plastic.
Planet Organic: tea bags heat-sealed with plastic. Looking for alternatives. Outer cellophane contains plastic.
Tea packaging and tea brewing
treadingmyownpath.com/2018/04/05/plastic-teabags/ A 2018 update of a popular 2014 article, giving a good guide to which tea bags are more likely to contain plastic.
www.consciouskiwi.nz/plastic-free-july/would-you-like-plastic-with-that/ Lists details of 14 tea bag brands available in NZ. July 2018.
Mei Leaf, The Guide to Brewing Tea (29-minute video, 2013): www.youtube.com/watch?v=puldqGnW9P0
Packaging issues generally
commonsenseorganics.co.nz/blog/the-plastic-problem-our-commonsense-packaging-journey/ The packaging journey by an ethical and organic retailer. A good explanation on degradable, biodegradable and compostable plastic and which is better. February 2018.
By Alison White. First published in Organic NZ March/April 2019.
Alison White is a life member of the Soil & Health Association, and co-convenor of the Safe Food Campaign