Is there plastic in your teabags? Most probably yes

One Change: Pyramid teabags release 11.6 billion microplastics into each cup of tea

Common teabags are still mostly made of paper, but they can contain plastic fibres woven through the paper to help them maintain their shape when boiling water is added. Photograph: iStock

Common teabags are still mostly made of paper, but they can contain plastic fibres woven through the paper to help them maintain their shape when boiling water is added. Photograph: iStock

 

There’s enough to worry about in this world without having to think about teabags, and yet new research by McGill University is giving us reason to. The study reveals that trendy nylon pyramid-shaped teabags used for many high-end teas release approximately 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics into a single cup. What this must do to our bodies is alarming, but even worse is the ultimate effect it has on our rivers and oceans.

The common teabags used by many of us every day are still mostly made of paper, but as gardeners will attest, they leave behind them a fine grey web of micro-plastics in the soil when composted. Plastic fibres are often woven through the paper to help them maintain their shape when the boiling water is added, as this helps to diffuse the flavour.

And so, yet another perfectly compostable item has become a potential toxic residue that will continue to pollute the environment for eons. This is especially relevant to Ireland – we drink the most tea per person in the world after Turkey, according to a global survey published by Statista in 2016.

Irish Times
Food&Drink Club

Exclusive events, competitions, reviews & recipes Join now

Barry’s Tea uses a petroleum-based plastic called polypropylene to seal their teabags, though after numerous negative media articles and an online petition, the Cork-based company has promised to phase it out. Progress has been painfully slow, and while they continue to trial new biodegradable solutions, you may want to switch to a company that has already adapted new technologies, such as using ultrasound to seal the teabag, or stitching it with organic cotton.

Lyons teabags, made in the UK and owned by the global conglomerate Unilever, has phased out plastics entirely from their packs of 40, 80 and 160 teabags, but the large 240-bag box will still contain plastic for another few months. Instead of polypropylene, the company now uses a biodegradable material derived from corn starch to seal the bags. It’s called PLA, or polylactic acid, which is supposed to break down in a home compost bin but could take some time. It is recommended that it goes into an industrial civic composter.  

The real challenge is not so much with the pocket-type teabags, but with the pyramid-shaped ones. Some high-end companies are replacing the nylon with biodegradable material made from corn starch, which is treated with an enzyme that allows it to be spun into filaments. Biodegradable means they can be broken down by a biological process, but that could require industrial composting using heat rather a garden compost bin. To ensure your tea is easily home compostable, use loose leaf tea, which should also save you money, and dramatically increase the quality of the tea you are drinking.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.