After the controversy with pesticides in tea, you’d think that that’d be the only thing we’d have to worry about. But that isn’t the case. Tea drinkers are now being urged to avoid certain tea companies, because of one little dilemma: plastic in tea bags.
Recent tests have revealed that a measly tea bag has the ability to shed billions of microplastic particles into every brewed cup.
Thankfully, avoiding plastic in tea bags isn’t as hard as you might think. It just might require you switching up your favorite tea companies for others (which for some, very well might be the hardest part).
But what bloomed the idea of testing tea bags? After all, you’d think that companies would have done studies before adding plastic to tea bags that steep in boiling hot water, right? Wrong. Fortunately for us, the idea bloomed in a small coffee shop as a PhD-level researcher and professor questioned the safety of plastic in her tea bag.
Plastic in Tea Bags: The Study
As Nathalie Tufenkji sat in a coffee shop about two and a half years ago, a thought crossed her mind as she lowered a bag of tea into hot water.
Tufenkji, a PhD-level researcher and professor of chemical engineering at McGill University in Canada couldn’t help but wonder — should we really be soaking plastic-mesh tea bags in boiling hot water?
“I thought, ‘That’s not a very good idea, putting plastic into boiling water,’” she told The Washington Post.
Tufenkji dispatched her student Laura Hernandez to purchase tea bags from a variety of companies and bring them back to the lab. Turns out, Tufenkji’s hunch was right. The bags were not only releasing a few particles of plastic — they were releasing billions and billions of them.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, found that steeping a plastic tea bag at a brewing temperature of 95ªC releases around 11.6 billion microplastics — tiny pieces of plastic between 100 nanometers and 5 millimeters in size — into a single cup. These levels were thousands of times higher than those reported previously in other foods.
To conduct their analysis, the researchers purchased four different commercial teas packaged in plastic teabags. The researchers cut open the bags, removed the tea leaves, and then heated the emptied bags in water to stimulate brewing tea. The tea bags were steeped for approximately 5 minutes.
Using electron microscopy, the team identified 11.6 billion microplastic, as well as 3 billion nanoplastic particles in the teabag-steeped water. The nanoplastic-sized particles, Tufenkji noted, would be small enough to potentially infiltrate human cells.
“We just wanted to make the public aware of this,” she told The Washington Post. “We want consumers to know that this is made of plastic so they can have the choice about whether this is really what they want to purchase.”
While the possible health effects of ingesting these particles are currently unknown, research into microplastics has already foreshadowed a negative impact.
How Harmful Are Microplastics?
A report published by the World Wildlife Fund from research done by the University of Newcastle, Australia, looked at data from 52 studies on microplastic ingestion. They figured that the average person consumes around 5 grams of plastic per week. That’s equivalent to a credit card.
Other reports estimate that Americans consume 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles per year from seafood, water, sugars, salt and alcohol alone.
Now, we’re seeing that consuming a plain cup of tea could expose us to billions of microplastic particles.
While the research is still in its early days, some studies suggest that chemicals present in these microplastic particles might be harmful to human health.
Take bisphenol A (BPA), for example. BPA is a basic building block of many plastics but interferes with natural hormone activity in humans by disrupting our endocrine system. And while the FDA and EPA both claim the amounts we are exposed to are less than what we should be concerned about, some research suggests otherwise.
A review published in Reproductive Toxicology found that BPA exposure may raise the risk of birth defects, metabolic disease, and other health problems.
Studies in animals have found that even low doses of BPA might have negative effects.
Not only is BPA harmful, but other potentially dangerous chemicals are often added to plastics to modify their appearance or functionality.
Phthalates, coloring agents, flame-retardants and antimicrobial agents are also of concern. Phthalates, often used as “plasticizers” to make plastic more flexible, are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can reduce testosterone levels in male fetuses.
Some pollutants and heavy metals can also adsorb or stick to the surface of microplastic particles. As a result, plastics can act like sponges in the environment, passively collecting chemicals onto their surfaces.
Furthermore, microplastics have been linked to respiratory health concerns, chronic inflammation, gastrointestinal system distress, and immune system suppression.
Brands That Use Plastic Tea Bags
When it comes to plastic use in tea, there are two things you need to be aware of:
- Paper tea bags sealed with a plastic glue that makes them non-recyclable or compostable.
- Plastic tea bags (the actual bag is made out of plastic, not paper) that begin to breakdown whenever put into hot water.
In order for the tea bags to remain sealed and keep their shape when exposed to boiling hot water, polypropylene must be added. This is the main reason why teabags aren’t compostable. Polypropylene is another endocrine-disrupting chemical that negatively impacts our hormones.
Discovering which brands use plastic in their tea bags is one of the easiest ways of avoiding unnecessary microplastic exposure. Here are some of those brands:
- Twinings (‘heat-sealed’ and ’string and tag’ ranges)
- PG Tips (on April 2018, PG announced they would move to 100% biodegradable tea bags. make sure you read the packaging to see if they are the new variety of bags)
- Co-op (they are looking into developing their own ‘brand 99’ tea bags that do not use plastic)
- Marks and Spencer (claim to take plastic out of all 450 million tea bags they sell, potentially by 2022)
- Waitrose (their ‘Duchy’ range is plastic-free and biodegradable – check packaging for details)
- QI Teas (in a statement they said they have “manufacturers of paper who are close to being able to provide the paper we need which can meet Organic standards”)
- Barry’s Tea
- Teavana (Starbucks)
- Bushells (paper made from Manila hemp, cellulose and thermoplastic fibers. Not compostable or recyclable)
- Lipton Green Decaf, Chai & Herbal Tea Bags (made from Manilla hemp, cellulose & thermoplastic fibers. They are not compostable or recyclable)
- Yorkshire Tea (Made a statement that by the end of 2019, all of their UK tea bags will be switched over to a renewable plant-based material used to seal tea bags (they used to use plastic)).
Brands That Use Plastic-Free Tea Bags
There are plenty of tea brands out there who make tea bags without the use of plastics. Many of them utilize products like corn-starch for glue or corn fibre for the bag itself.
- Good Earth
- Brew Tea Company
- Hampstead Tea
- We Are Tea
- Nemi Tea
- Good & Proper
- Celestial Seasonings
- Yogi Tea
- Republic of Tea
- Numi Organic Tea
- Golden Moon Organic Tea
- The Tao of Tea
- Pukka Herb Teas
- Clipper Tea
- Tea Tonic
- Nature’s Cuppa
- Twinings pyramid range
- Waitrose Duchy range
Alternative Plastic-Free Tea Options
There are plenty of easy ways to avoid plastic tea bags, and plastic exposure during the tea-making process.
The first would be boiling water in a glass electric kettle to avoid leaching of plastic from conventional plastic kettles. Stainless steel kettles also work well.
You can even opt to purchase a glass tea pot with a stainless steel infuser for those who want to go the loose leaf tea direction.
Alternatively, you could invest in some reusable unbleached cotton tea bags to stuff with loose leaf tea, or a simple stainless steel metal tea infuser.
Mountain Rose Herbs sells some amazing organic loose leaf teas. I always suggest going organic if you can, because pesticide and herbicide use in tea is largely unregulated.