Plastic was seen as a simple solution to many of the world’s problems. It was easier to use, cheaper to buy and work, and as a result, it allowed for cheaper manufacturing. But we’re now waking up to the issues this plastic obsession has caused, and as a result, companies are under extreme pressure to remove plastics from their products.
An area that was largely overlooked until a couple years ago was the tea industry, and tea bags in particular. A plastic by the name of polypropylene is used as a sealant in many popular brands of tea, including a large number of the cheaper black tea blends found in your local supermarket, and this has been cause for concern with tea-drinkers nationwide.
Prior to launching the range of organic loose-leaf teas in the Shelgo Tea store, we looked at creating a range of tea bags. But in the end, this just wasn’t practical or affordable for most products (although we still have something special in the pipeline) and that’s because we were focusing on being plastic-free and environmentally friendly in an industry dominated by plastic.
Thankfully, following increased consumer pressure, this seems to be changing, and 2019 could be the year in which this plastic is removed from common tea bags. In the meantime, keep reading to learn why this change is important and which companies are forcing it through.
Is the Plastic in Tea Bags Dangerous?
One thing needs to be made clear before we go any further: polypropylene, the plastic used in tea bags, is safe, at least as far as we know. There are no suggestions it becomes unstable in high temperatures, and it’s actually very resilient and robust. That doesn’t mean its use is less problematic (more on that below), but it may help alleviate your concerns if you’ve spent a lifetime using tea bags and are only now learning about this plastic sealant.
Environmentally speaking, it’s much more of an issue. One of the catalysts that has led to the recent demand for change was home-composters noticing a lot of leftover “fluff” material in their compost heaps. This triggered a petition that recorded hundreds of thousands of signatures and was then given to PG Tips, who seemingly heeded the demands and agreed to make a change.
Once PG Tips had taken those steps, other companies followed, and now, in late 2018, we’re on the precipice of major change. In a few years, there should be no plastic in any of the tea bags you buy from your local supermarket, but until that happens, the onus is on you, the consumer, to do the research and make sure the tea bags you buy were not made using plastic.
Why This is a Problem
Tea companies and campaigners are focusing on the environmental impact of all this excess plastic. Tea bags that contain plastic do not breakdown completely, which means that even when you’re adding those used bags to your compost heap, you’re still adding to the problem of plastic pollution (albeit only marginally).
A single teabag doesn’t contain a lot of plastic, but when you scale this up and consider that every year more than 60 billion cups of tea are consumed in the United Kingdom alone, then you understand why it could be an issue.
But there is another factor at play. In our experience as a tea company and as tea-drinkers, consumers are not comfortable with the idea that they’re adding boiling water to something that contains plastic and then drinking it. It doesn’t make for a palatable thought, especially in a world where everyone is increasingly aware of the pesticides and contaminants in the food we eat.
As mentioned above, the plastic in tea bags is not known to be dangerous and is not thought to leech into the food we eat or the liquids we drink, but it’s still a difficult notion to digest, especially when you consider many of the plastics now thought to be highly toxic were once considered to be safe for use. You can’t blame the consumer for being a little distrusting and cautious.
Which Tea Companies Use Plastic?
We’re not in the business of discrediting other tea companies and don’t want to point fingers, but generally, if they’re not declaring they are “plastic free”, then there’s a good chance they use tea bags that contain plastic. This is especially true of many popular supermarket brands that feed Britain’s habit for a builder’s brew.
Which Tea Companies are Plastic Free?
Very few tea companies are 100% plastic free. Plastic is used in most packaging, as it’s not easy to meet food health requirements while being 100% plastic free, and it’s even harder if you’re trying to do it affordably and you want your product on supermarket shelves.
It’s easier to create a plastic-free teabag, though, and that’s why many companies announced they were trying to do just that in 2018. This included some of the biggest tea brands out there, such as PG Tips and Tetleys. However, there were many brands that didn’t make any such announcement and, as far as we know, are making no efforts to go plastic free. This includes some brands that may be considered as “mid-range” or even “high end”, so don’t assume that just because you’re paying more money, you’re getting something plastic free.
The easiest way to make sure there is no plastic in your tea is to drink loose-leaf tea using an infuser made from stainless steel, or an infuser bottle like our own Shelgo Tea Infuser. If you can’t give up those tea bags then you can buy disposable ones made from natural fibres that you fill yourself (they’re basically just material infusers). If you want to stick with disposal tea bags bought fully prepared (we don’t blame you, we drink a lot of black tea and red tea this way) then just spend some time researching your chosen tea company.
If you can’t find any information on the product, look at the company’s website. If they are plastic free, you’ll know it. This is a pretty big deal right now, and any company that has gone plastic free is not going to be coy about the fact.