Tea and plastic


TEA – There’s nothing like a cup of tea….So you would think there is nothing more natural than a cup of tea wouldn’t you? Leaves simply picked, dried, blended, and packaged often in a handy little paper tea bag. Well that is until you learn that the majority of tea bags sold in the UK contain plastic.

Yes those little bags of flavour hide a secret. To stop them coming apart the majority are heat sealed, to allow this they contain polypropylene to help keep their shape and stop splitting when wet.
This means that they are not fully compostable, and rotting them down will leave little tea bag skeletons in your compost releasing plastic particles into the soil and thus the food chain as the worms will munch what’s in the soil, birds eat the worms, and so on….

So what is the answer? Loose leaf tea is obviously the best solution as less packaging all round. But if you really cannot do without a tea bag read on for our update on what the more commercial manufacturers are doing. Or go on-line and research who is doing what as the situation is changing all the time with numerous ethical and smaller brands ditching plastic as part of their business model.

We as ever in the #livinggentler family look for the balance between cost and environmental benefit. Unfortunately we don’t have £££’s to spend on designer or fashionable ethically and eco aware teas.. Oh that we did!

So our approach as ever reflects what Joe and Joanne public would reasonably be able to do, we look at the most commonly available products that can help reduce our impact on an average family budget.

So to kick off!

News from the retail giant that is Sainsbury’s as of summer 2021 their own brand teas are free of oil based plastics! This includes the bags and the packaging. Sainsburys are using a type of PLA (biodegradable plant based plastic) in their bags, but the packaging is now plastic free. Their press release on this can be seen here. We think this is a major step forward with Sainsbury’s being the first of the big four UK supermarkets to take this step.

Dorset Tea produce a range of traditional teas and fruit infusions. Their bags are biodegradable (as of October 2020) we had a 40 pack of their Golden / Sunshine tea which we believe is their everyday tea. Its smooth flavoured and slightly tannic making it refreshing. It is blended and packed in the UK the box we had was not plastic wrapped neither were the bags inside, but the tea still tastes fresh.

Now to Clipper teas, they were the first bulk tea producer to make their bags plastic free!

Clipper make their bags from the banana plant ensuring they are sustainable, the bags are oil based plastic free, unbleached, and fully compostable as opposed to biodegradable in council (kerbside) waste streams.

We think this is great news and shows what that a volume tea company can do to make a change for the better as their approach makes their bags less polluting in manufacture than most other producers….

As with all new developments the number of brands selling biodegradable / compostable teabags continues to grow many using plant based polylactic acid (PLA) plastics instead of fossil fuel based polypropylene (PP).

Abel & Cole and Teapigs use SoilOn, a corn-starch which incorporates biomass material (polylactic acid) originating from plants, but is not compostable at home.

  • Abel & Cole,
  • Aldi Specially selected,
  • COOP,
  • PG Tips and Pukka (Unilever),
  • Sainsbury’s
  • Teapig,
  • Tetley’s catering range,
  • Twinings pyramid range,
  • Waitrose Duchy range,

All now use biodegradable bags, with the COOP having been the first supermarket to make their own label teabags biodegradeable.

It is worth clarifying, biodegradable is NOT compostable, well not easily. So in effect if it says biodegradable it really has to go through a local authority green waste (kerbside) scheme as whilst not using fossil fuel plastic, the vegetable / cornstarch materials used are still technically plastic (PLA). While they will eventually break down in an efficient home composting system they are not readily home compostable.

At this point Pukka (part of Unilever) deserve a mention. They have made really positive steps, they now have a bag that is biodegradable / compostable, the little sachet tag, string, and the wrapper is now also all suitable for the garden waste stream in many places. However this only applies to Pukka tea! The envelopes around their herbal infusions still contains a thin layer of oil based PVC which makes them non-recyclable and they should go in your general waste.

We feel Teapigs deserve an extra special mention as we feel they have really gone the extra mile! Teapigs were the first brand to receive the world’s first plastic-free trust mark, created by the campaign group A Plastic Planet in May 2018.

Their biodegradable bags are made from cornstarch, while the paper tags use vegetable inks and are, you’ll be glad to read, non-toxic.

Also strange as it may seem when you open your box even the clear “plastic” inner bag (made from natureflex) which is fully compostable. They can go in your home food recycling bin for compost, which may feel strange, but they will compost down without putting microplastics into the environment.

Like herbal?

New to the hebal / floral tea market are Neal Yard organics, they have a limited range but are ethically souced, sustainably manufactured and 100% recyclable / compostable.

Neals Yard say their bags contain 100% organic ingredients, and support Fair Wild sustainable standard. Bags are biodegradable / compostable, environmentally friendly, oxygen bleached and made from natural Abaca.

Currently at £4.00 for 18 bags plus p&p they are not cheap, but are possibly the most sustainable herbal available at the moment.
Mrs Livinggentler has these for sale as a Neals Yard affiliate via her webstore, to find out more click here they are of course also available from the Neals Yard website.

Unfortunately most tea bag boxes come wrapped in non-recyclable plastic, and then the bags inside are wrapped in foiled plastic (non-recyclable) in the main this is an issue that suppliers seem to not be dealing with at the moment, Unilever say its PG Tips brand is actively looking at removing the plastic wrap on retail packages (But then sells catering and wholesale volumes in plastic sacks and bags!) time will tell on that….

Not yet fully on board Yorkshire tea have put information on their website about what they use in their packaging. 25% of the tea bag being plastic! Their info is HERE they are however a Carbon Neutral business across both their tea and coffee production which is a huge step forwards. They have also stopped using coffee pods to minimise waste and carbon footprint so it seems they are trying! They estimate their teabags will be fossil fuel plastic free around mid 2021, at the time of writing (August ’21) we are still waiting for news..

Where can can we look try to and ensure the tea we buy is ethically sourced. The ethical tea partnership works to improve the lives of tea workers internationally. A list of their member organisations can be found HERE

What are we doing in the #livinggentler family? How are we navigating this hotch potch of approaches? Generally we use loose leaf tea in a pot, we find this is more cost effective, we also have loose leaf herbal, and Clipper tea bags for when we are feeling just plain lazy.

When we get to the North London suburb of Muswell Hill to see family, we always pop into the wonderfully old fashioned Martyn’s and pick up loose leaf tea from this amazing independent supplier. We take our own paper bag to put the tea in rather than having it in a plastic bag in a box.


The terminology, can be confusing so a fact check is useful.

Biodegradeable means you can dispose of bags in your council food caddy without worrying about microplastics. These will eventually break down in home composting but will take a long time even with ideal heat and composting emzymes in your composter.

Compostable bags can go in with your garden and kitchen waste and be composted like other vegetative matter in you home composter, and will break down entirely.

PLA, Cornstarch, and other plant based non-fossil fuel binders used in bags are still a type of plastic.

Polypropylene (PP) breaks down forming microplastic particles that are environmentally problematic.

Polylactic acid (PLA) is a renewable plant based plastic now used in many tea bags. It will eventually biodegrade and not leave microplastic particles.

PVC is an oil based plastic which will not biodegrade but will break up into microplastic particles.

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