Will you take plastic with your tea?

tea bag and tea cup
CC BY 2.0 Pasi Mammela

People are often surprised to learn that tea bags contain up to 25% plastic, which raises concerns about health and environmental implications. Good news is, there's a better way to make the perfect cuppa.

Tea drinkers are a fussy bunch. They have strong preferences about how they like their tea, whether it's with milk or sugar (or both), strong or weak, steaming hot or tepid. I recall my English babysitter even telling me that the milk has to go in the cup before the tea. But there is one thing tea drinkers are likely to agree on, and that's the fact that plastic in tea is quite disgusting.

For Britons, who drink an estimated 165 million cups of tea daily, many were stunned to learn that the vast majority of tea bags contains plastic. Manufacturers add plastic polymers to seal and help bags keep their shape while steeping. Although the quantities are relatively small, the amount of plastic adds up. Jo Whitfield of Co-op Foods gives a disturbing breakdown:

"When you consider the 6 billion cups of tea that are brewed up every year in the UK, we are looking at around 150 tonnes of polypropylene – that’s an enormous amount of accumulated plastic waste that is either contaminating food waste compost collections or simply going to landfill."

Tea companies use different amounts of polypropylene. Unilever, which owns PG Tips, says its bags are 80 percent paper. TeaDirect says its bags are only 70 percent biodegradable, and Yorkshire Tea says 75 percent. (via Times of London, behind paywall)

Many gardeners can attest to this, since tea bags do not break down fully in backyard composters. Mike Armitage is a gardener from North Wales who, after finding a "residual fluff" in his compost, started a campaign to remove plastics from tea bags. His petition has gained fierce momentum in recent months, with over 231,000 signatures.

Despite this, people are still told to compost their tea bags. In 2010, the UK's recycling organization WRAP said that people should just rip open their tea bags before composting to speed along the process:

"Our advice remains that teabags are suitable for composting. If the bags are still visible when you want to use the compost, they can be sieved out or picked off the surface of the soil."

But this hardly addresses the problem. Personally, I don't want to be picking out pieces of tea bag from my compost, nor do I like the idea of pouring boiling water over polyethylene and sipping the resulting beverage.

Manufacturers are reluctant to change, saying it will be costly to make an all-paper tea bag -- this despite the fact that some small-scale tea companies are already doing it. A spokesperson for the UK Tea and Infusions Association told the Guardian:

"The UK tea industry has been experimenting with non-plastic sealing methods, but those methods are costly. The raw material cost and upgrades to machinery would increase the cost of a bag by about eight times if we were to move to a non-plastic sealing procedure now."

The good news is, we tea-lovers don't have to wait around. There are other plastic-free alternatives out there. As is the case with so many of our green lifestyle solutions, it's back to the old-fashioned way of doing this -- loose leaf tea in a metal strainer! Not only is it greener, but it tastes far better. One commenter on the Times article pointed out that tea bags were invented as a way for manufacturers to get away with selling a lower-quality product:

"Tea bags were invented during WW2 when Go-Downs in India were stacked high with undelivered tea as shipping had to run the U boat blockades into UK and beyond. The tea in the lower bags was crushed under the weight of the bags on top and tea dust developed. The problem was, what to do with it? Someone had a bright spark. Thus the tea bag was born to utilise the tea dust mixed with better grade tea and immediately more grades of (cheaper) tea were created."

Loose tea leaves can be purchased in refillable containers in a variety of locations; check your local bulk food store or coffee shop. Note that some companies do produce plastic-free tea bags, although, ironically, these often come in plastic-wrapped boxes. These producers are usually small-scale, fair-trade operations that are good to support.

My advice is to buy an open-topped metal strainer (like this one from David's Tea). I make a single mug of tea at a time and I often let the tea leaves dry out before tossing them in the compost and refilling. My husband calls this "not cleaning up after myself" but I swear it works. This is much easier than fussing with a round tea strainer.

So, don't worry. Your tea habit only needs to change a little bit in order to avoid plastic. Before long, you'll wonder why you ever thought opening a bag and having to throw away the wrapper was any more convenient than tossing a spoonful of leaves into a strainer to make a superior cup.

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