Updated: Feb 6, 2020
You’d probably be surprised to learn that most tea bags contain up to 25% plastic. In fact, we didn’t know about plastic in tea bags until we watched a viral BBC video about tea production in 2017.
Canadian researchers published a study in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Environmental Science and Technology which found that steeping a single plastic tea bag at brewing temperature releases about 11.6 billion minuscule particles known as “microplastics” and 3.1 billion “nanoplastics” into each cup.
“We think that it is a lot when compared to other foods that contain microplastics,” Nathalie Tufenkji of McGill University in Quebec, told The New Scientist. “Table salt, which has a relatively high microplastic content, has been reported to contain approximately 0.005 micrograms plastic per gram salt. A cup of tea contains thousands of times greater mass of plastic, at 16 micrograms per cup.”
A spot of tea… and some plastic?
When you look at a tea bag, plastic usually isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Yet about a quarter of each tea bag (from most brands) is comprised of this substance. You can watch how tea bags made and how plastic is incorporated in this video.
WAIT – WHY IS PLASTIC IN TEA BAGS?
It may be hard to believe, but most brands of bagged tea contain plastic. With millions upon millions of cups consumed daily, this adds up to a lot of plastic.
So why is plastic in tea bags to begin with?
In order for the tea bags to seal up and keep their shape in hot liquid, a plastic polymer, namely polypropylene, must be added. Even though the amounts of plastic found in tea bags is minimal — and vary between manufacturers — it adds up to quite a bit when you look at the big picture.
Due to the plastic content, conventional tea bags cannot completely decompose. This makes them a bad option for compost material and the environment… not to mention your body!
Like most plastics, polypropylene is known to adversely affect the body’s endocrine system (source). And as we’ve covered many times, endocrine disruptors can lead to a plethora of health issues and other maladies that can become chronic conditions.
One would think making the switch to plastic-free tea bags would be easy, but many tea manufacturers protest that non-plastic bags would be too costly to implement.
THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF TEA
The rich antioxidants (also called polyphenols) in green tea are extremely beneficial to the heart and brain. Tea is known to alleviate acne, bad breath, colds, stress, and prevent eye diseases like glaucoma. Although too much caffeinated tea can lead to a lack of sleep, just the right amount before bedtime is one of the many therapies that are recommended to put an end to raucous snores, leading to better overall sleep as well.
The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that, “Polyphenols contained in teas are classified as catechins. Green tea contains six primary catechin compounds: catechin, gallaogatechin, epicatechin, epigallocatechin, epicatechin gallate, and apigallocatechin gallate (also known as EGCG). EGCG is the most studied polyphenol component in green tea and the most active.”
“Green tea also contains alkaloids including caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline. They provide green tea’s stimulant effects. L-theanine, an amino acid compound found in green tea, has been studied for its calming effects on the nervous system.”
HOW TO AVOID PLASTIC IN TEA
Although the bigger tea bag manufacturers seem hesitant to make the switch to plastic-free bags, you don’t have to wait to start drinking tea the safer and eco-friendly way.
CHOOSE LOOSE LEAF TEA
If you’ve used bagged tea because you thought loose leaf was too much trouble, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Organic loose-leaf tea can be made just as conveniently and it’s typically more flavourful because the tea leaves haven’t been ground to dust to fit into a tiny plastic-riddled tea bag!
Many organic loose-leaf tea brands come in easy to store tins or eco-friendly packaging.
Loose leaf tea is a more economical choice since they are priced by weight while tea bags are priced per bag. You can also reuse loose leaf tea to make a second cup to cut expenses and waste. You can buy loose leaf tea in bulk. This involves as little waste and plastic contamination as possible, but loose-leaf tea can also be purchased in cans or boxes if bulk is not an option for you.
HOW TO BREW LOOSE LEAF TEA WITHOUT PLASTIC
There are plenty of simple ways to avoid plastic tea bags. One way that probably doesn’t require any new kitchen purchases on your part is to boil water on the stove top and pour it into a mug of loose-leaf tea. If you don’t want to drink tea leaves, strain it with a stainless-steel strainer or a piece of cheese cloth you can wash and reuse.
A stainless-steel tea infuser eliminates plastic contamination and the need for straining. Pour hot water into a tea mug and steep with loose leaf tea in the infuser for 3 to 5 minutes.
CHOOSE BRANDS THAT DON’T USE PLASTIC IN THEIR TEA BAGS
If you just really love brewing bagged tea, look for brands that don’t use plastic in their teabags. It’s hard to find a published list anywhere, but there are brands that have confirmed they do not use plastic in their string-and-tag teabags.
There are plenty of options that can give you the tea you love while also protecting the environment and your health. That way you can enjoy the numerous health benefits of tea without any of the side effects of plastic.