In this installment industry leaders where asked: In light of research at McGill University that revealed unusual amounts of microplastics leaching from plastic tea bags – and the ensuing public discomfort, will you share you view on the role and evolution of tea bags.
Less than 5% of the tea bag material manufactured globally is Nylon or PET (polyethylene terephthalate) the materials investigated at McGill University, but that still amounts to several billion tea bags annually. Alibaba lists 1,000 nylon silk distributors and more than 5,000 nylon tea bag options (note the lowercase nylon, a generic designation for a broad category of synthetic polymer fibers). Consider also that there are several types of biodegradable nylon and that some plant-based plastics cannot be certified biodegradable.
Manufacturers of tea bag materials market woven and nonwoven* sheets that are a combination of natural products with PLA (polylactic acid) threads necessary to heat-seal the edges of the tea bag. PLA is a thermoplastic commonly made from fermented plant starch from corn, cassava, sugarcane or beet pulp. It can be cast, injection molded or spun into threads that typically constitute about 30% of the filter. Machinable paper is common (tea bags are glued shut, tied with string or cleverly folded) and for smaller runs several brands rely exclusively on silk or cotton gauze, materials that date to the first tea bag patent (pictured at right). Patent No. 723,287 was awarded to two women in Wisconsin in 1903. William Hermanson, one of the founders of Technical Papers Corp., in Boston first patented the heat-seal paper filter tea bag in 1930. The familiar rectangular tea bag was not invented until 1944.
Major filter materials manufacturers today offer many alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. Few rely on synthetic fiber and Nylon mesh, preferring natural products such as abaca (a sustainable fiber from Ecuador and the Philippines) reinforced with various types of thread.
*Non-woven filter paper is bonded together by entangling fiber or filaments mechanically, thermally or chemically. They are not made by weaving or knitting and do not require converting the fibers into yarn. Many single-use non-woven fabrics are engineered to be recycled.
At the risk of sounding presumptuous, it was a bit astonishing to me to see our industry’s intense surprise reaction to the McGill University study which found microplastics and nanoplastics leaching out of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and Nylon (thermoplastics) tea sachet material. Sure, the numbers sounded huge, and in terms of the size and quantity of particles actually leaching into your cup from a plastic teabag, I surely don’t have the background to appreciate or comment on what they really amount to. But we all know that plastics leach, especially in hot water. You probably wouldn’t steep hot tea for your kid in a plastic cup, nor in a plastic filter – so why should a plastic teabag be any different?
Plastics are prevalent in so many common foods – from water, to fish who came out of our now plastic-littered waters, to anything in plastic packaging, and even the air we breathe in. Plastic leaches. People living in North America apparently ingest the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic every week, and enough to make an entire plastic coat hanger – every month! There are many different types of plastics, with, of course, varying degrees of toxicity and potential impact on our immune systems. One can’t help but wonder what the cumulative effect from the buildup of these toxins will be on human health.
At The Tea Spot, we’ve been proponents of pyramid sachet materials which are made from plant-based alternatives to nylon and polyethylene, and which are biodegradable. We made these choices primarily with zero-waste and low carbon footprint environmental considerations in mind. Our biodegradable sachets are made from bioplastics derived by lactic fermentation of plant starch material.
That’s not to say that tea manufacturers who don’t use plastic teabags can just sit back and relax. We should all be constantly questioning and testing for many different aspects of the safety of our raw materials – ranging from pesticides, bacteria, lead and other environmental pollutants to foreign bodies unintentionally introduced during processing and packaging, as well as any potential allergens. Our sachet material is no different. We have only the test and compliance data indicating that the plant-based mesh material we use is clean and safe – as well as a strong and trusting relationship with our supplier – which for us is paramount in our manufacturing partners.
Founder & CEO, The Tea Spot
Newby produces only the finest quality teas and hence the packaging was always important for us. There is no point in buying the best if you cannot preserve the quality for the consumers to enjoy. Using the best materials available was always our moto. Where possible we used the best, sometimes even revolutionary packaging materials. The safety and the quality of our product was at the forefront of our mission. However, for us the focus in the last 5 years has evolved from ‘best packaging’ to ‘less and safe packaging’.
We have always used biodegradable materials in the bags themselves. All Newby teabags and pyramid bags are plastic-free. Fully biodegradable, our Silken Pyramids are made from corn starch while our Classic Teabags are made from a mixture of wood pulp and abaca which is a natural plant fiber.
We were the only luxury tea brand to move our production from Europe to India in 2005 to reduce the voyage the tea makes in order to be packed. This allowed us to reduce the production time and subsequently our carbon footprint.
We are probably the only tea company to use alu-foil for the teabag sachets when most companies use pure plastic. The biggest challenge for us now is to replace the foiled sachets for our teabags with fully biodegradable options. We have removed all plastic overwraps from our classic teabag products, as well as all plastic lamination on the cardboard boxes. We are working really hard to reduce the packaging amount further.
Speaking about the future of the teabags, the pyramid bags have been by far the fastest growing category of our product range in the past few years powered not only by consumers looking for better quality products with convenience value, but also by the luxury hospitality industry, which is the primary market for Newby.
While traditional teabags, which were once termed “the biggest time savior in the world”, are under no immediate or long-term threat of disappearing, with around 90% of modern tea consumption consisting of low quality cheap teabags, for us as a premium tea supplier, it is obvious that the consumer behavior needs to change.
With demand for low cost products on the shelves, with ignorance of the masses about the dangers of poor quality teas and cheap teabags, the manufacturers will not be able to provide quality product at the prices dictated by the market and supermarket industry. Good can’t be cheap and cheap can’t be good.
In the short-term, we motivate consumers to switch to quality loose leaf tea which is the most sustainable option. Sounds like a lot of work for many, but in reality, it takes perhaps a minute or two more than a teabag and helps to save the planet.
Global Marketing Director, Newby Teas UK
We’ve received a number of questions about the safety of our tea pouches in response to recent articles on the CBC News and CNN websites. We want to assure you that at Mighty Leaf Tea, the quality and safety of our tea is our greatest concern. The study cited in the article did not test Mighty Leaf Tea pouches or the materials they are made of. The study, which sought to determine whether certain plastic teabags could release microplastics and/or nanoplastics during a typical steeping process, tested PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and nylon pouches. Mighty Leaf Tea pouches are not made from either PET or nylon. Mighty Leaf Tea pouches are made from a 100% polylactic acid (PLA) woven yarn. The PLA is made from the fermentation of sugar milled from corn. In addition, our tea pouches are made with good manufacturing practices and comply with all applicable food safety regulations.
Vice President Tea, Mighty Leaf Tea
As a professional tea educator and business owner, I aim to source the highest quality tea products and implement stringent quality controls in our factory. When we began looking into bagging teas, we were extremely careful about the materials we selected.
Our company spent months doing extensive research into the tea bag materials being used around the world and were aware of the issues around contamination. We discovered that nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bags which are petroleum based non-biodegradable plastics were releasing concerning amounts of microparticles and nanoparticles into tea when brewed in water at higher temperatures.
As result of our findings we managed to source a safe product and solution to the contamination problem. Yamanaka Industry Co, Ltd has created a material called Soilon™ that is composed of bio-based, non-oil based biodegradable polylactic acid (PLA) derived from plants. We have been using his product for our all our tea bags since we began bagging tea. We believe this type of fabric should be the industry standard.
The current concerns circulating regarding contamination are not only a concern to the general population and the tea industry but to our company. We are concerned that there is an increasing assumption that all tea bags with a similar appearance to the Nylon bags are made of the same material when in fact companies like Australian Tea Masters are spending the time and resources to research and deliver a more health conscious and environmentally friendly solution.
We also have taken the time and effort to have our factory HACCP, export approved, Halal, Kosher and organic certified. Using the safest and best tea bag material is of the utmost importance.
Founder, Australian Tea Masters
I think it’s important that we are responsive to the concerns of consumers. The notion of consuming microplastics in one’s tea threatens the “health halo” that the tea industry has enjoyed for years.
Whether or not the McGill University study’s daunting numbers of plastic particles released from a single pyramid tea bag poses a health risk to humans isn’t worth debating. The fact is, more of these microplastics are being consumed in our food chain and what’s troubling is the cumulative effects that these may have on our bodies over time.
I believe companies need to be transparent about the materials and glues they currently use in their tea bag production, and work toward providing materials that consumers are confident will be safe. For some companies, it can’t happen over night, but their consumers need to know they are taking the findings seriously, and working toward making needed changes as quickly as possible.
Stash Tea is 100% committed to food safe products for our consumers. Our tea bags are made from 100% unbleached wood cellulose fibers, which is essentially paper. When our tea bags are made, they’re folded by our machines and threaded with the string—so we don’t use any glue either.
Research & Development Specialist, Stash Tea Company
The study in question deals exclusively with PET and nylon bags. No tea bags made of PLA were studied. Approximately 90% of the pyramid bags used by Halssen & Lyon GmbH are’woven PLA’ or ‘non-woven PLA’ both are regarded as alternatives to filter material made of nylon. These materials are produced on the basis of renewable resources, are biodegradable, and industrially compostable.
Any PLA microparticles released are broken down into water and carbon dioxide in the human body. Implants, such as bone pins used in medical technology, are an example of their application. These remain in the body after the operation and are metabolised over time.
From our point of view, the experimental setup of the McGill study is questionable. This is mainly due to the fact that a prior contamination of the sample material with microplastics cannot be ruled out. Furthermore, cutting the bag is not the way it is usually used. In addition, the basis for extrapolating the total number of particles measured is not known, and the randomly purchased bags are not representative of the market.
The manufacturers of the materials have, of course, commissioned counter-studies. However, these require time. We will share them with you as soon as we receive the findings.
Microplastics are found everywhere in the environment, in the air we breathe, in household dust, in water from plastic bottles. Nylon filter material that we use comply, in every respect, with all of European Union food regulations. According to experts, the risk associated with microplastics being absorbed by the human body is estimated to be low. However, they also point out that further research is required on the topic.
CEO, Haelssen & Lyon North America Corp.
We are proud to never have used PET [(poly)ethylene terephthalate] or nylon and to have solely used polylactic acid (PLA) in our sachets since we first launched a sachet product line in 2012. Despite the fact that PLA is 3x more expensive than PET and nylon, those two synthetic materials were never on the table for us due to the common sense concerns we had then about leaching. Years ago, we tested our PLA sachets at a polymers lab for BPA and a range of phthalates – all came through totally clean with non-detectable results. Some tea companies might tell you they were hesitant about PLA because of concerns about GMO corn being used as the raw material in its production. This is misleading. Yes, some corn used to produce PLA is most certainly GMO. That is the result of the unfortunate agribusiness politics in our country. But the process of making PLA involves converting the corn sugars and starches into polylactic acid, an inert material with zero DNA traces remaining, GMO or otherwise.
As an organic-minded company, we can think of a lot of other plants we’d like to grow in lieu of GMO corn. Alas, millions of acres of corn are already planted here and we think utilizing that widely available resource to produce the most food-safe option out there for tea sachets is pretty neat. As soon as a non-GMO PLA material is available we’ll strive to be among the first tea companies to adopt it. Until then, Consumers: we urge you to ask your tea company what material their sachets are made from and to choose those like Rishi that use PLA and not PET or nylon.