Plastic Tea Bags – What are they?

By 17th December 2019biodegradability testing
plastic tea bags

In the UK, it is renowned that we Brits are fond of our tea. It is estimated that in Britain, we drink 165 million cups of tea per day. In the UK, there are 6 big main sellers of tea bags. When it comes to plastic tea bags, only two of them are currently plastic-free.


What is a plastic tea bag?

Not many people know that their tea bags contain plastic or even know why. When not using loose leaf tea, the tea is placed in a bag so it can steep in the water. The bag is normally heat sealed with a small amount of oil-based plastic (from a fossil source).  Whether or not the tea bags are branded as being biodegradable or not, most councils encourage you to put them in their household food disposal bins.

The tea brand Clippers, use a bio-based plastic in place of regular plastic, meaning that it is renewable and made from plants. This is considered a silver-lining, while more eco-friendly and not a traditional plastic, bio-based plastic, is still a plastic. Due to this, the best way to refer to this use of material, is as ‘plant-based’, rather than ‘plastic-free’. This causes some controversy on whether or not Clippers tea bags are actually plastic-free. So out of the top sellers in the UK, how many of them sell plastic tea bags?

The other big brands Twinings, PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, Tetley and Pukka are all the 5 biggest selling brands in the UK, with Clippers coming in 6th. Pukka are the only brand of these 6 that are completely plastic free. Each of their tea bags are folded and stitched with organic cotton. This is a very costly and time-consuming method, with each tea bag having to be sealed individually by hand.

Each of these other brands have made pledges at some point or another, to say that they are either looking into changing to bio-based plastic or are in the process of changing over to these, in place of their original plastic tea bags that were oil-based. Twinings have said that from January 2020, their tea bags will be plant-based and that many of their ‘tag’ tea bags are already plastic-free, using the same cotton stitch as Pukka. PG Tips stated in 2018 that they were moving toward a similar goal, having now already produced 1 billion plant-based tea bags since then.

Yorkshire Tea done their research into the options available to them, with different methods for moving away from their plastic heat sealing. In the end, they stated that their easiest option was to move to using bio-based plastic, so they could continue to use their current set-up in Harrogate, meaning they could continue to keep up with their production demand.

Tetley while only containing a small amount of plastic for their seals, are looking to have all their main core ranges completely biodegradable by 2020. We will need to see if this is followed through.

With these brands looking to make changes, their tea bags will be able to biodegrade within a few weeks, instead of going to landfill. If this shift is complete, this would help to remove part of the issue with microplastics. This would be a huge success, especially to the WRAP led UK Plastic Pact, that has had a focus on moving companies in the direction of compostable materials, such as bio-based plastics for their tea bags. It seems their persistence has paid off.