Plastic free tea bags have become a bit of a holy grail item in the past year. And learning more about the materials in a humble tea bag has been a bit of a learning curve for all of us.
Not least the tea companies themselves.
In the scramble to label their tea bags ‘plastic free’, many brands have adopted a type of plastic made from plants. This has started a wave of greenwashing that could lead you to believe that most brands are plastic free in 2021.
Using plant-based plastic makes no difference. It only serves to confuse consumers who are trying to do the right thing. And when we researched, we found that there’s only 1 UK brand on our list that can claim to be truly plastic free.
- How We Compare Plastic Free Tea Bags
- What Is PLA?
- 1. Are Teapigs Plastic Free?
- 2. Are PG Tips’ Tea Bags Plastic Free?
- 3. Will Tetley Tea Bags Ever Be Plastic Free?
- 4. Are Clipper Tea Bags Plastic Free?
- 5. Is Whittard Loose Leaf Tea Plastic Free?
- 6. Is Yorkshire Tea Plastic Free?
- 7. Do T2 Tea Bags Contain Plastic?
- 8. Is Pukka Tea Plastic Free?
- Which Is the Only Truly Plastic Free Tea Bag in the UK?
How We Compare Plastic Free Tea Bags
I’m a stickler for detail, so I’m going to compare plastic free tea bags on the whole package:
- Outer packaging – How sustainable is the outer packaging?
- Inner packaging – What kind of bag are the teabags held in?
- Teabag and seal – Is it a paper teabag, or a PLA pyramid teabag?
We’re also going to look carefully at the following words that tea companies use on their ‘sustainability’ pages:
- Plant based
- Industrially compostable
- Council food waste collection
All of these terms are used to make tea bags sound eco friendly. In fact, many of the so-called plastic free bags they’re talking about still contain plastic. They are just as damaging to our seas and rivers as they always were.
To understand why, we need to know a bit about PLA.
What Is PLA?
PLA is short for polylactic acid. It is made from corn or maize starch, so tea companies like to call it a ‘plant based material’. But it is still plastic. It doesn’t biodegrade anywhere quickly enough to be a non-polluting material.
PLA is used to make everything from toothbrush handles to Lego. In terms of sustainability, you could definitely argue that’s better than regular plastic because it isn’t made from oil. But the process of making it is not what most people would call ‘eco-friendly’. There’s a good article here explaining bioplastics in more detail.
And PLA does biodegrade, which is why so many tea bag companies claim it’s eco-friendly. Sometimes they mix up terms like compostable and biodegradable, which aren’t the same thing, so that just serves to confuse people about how PLA actually behaves if you discard it.
Tests show PLA carrier bags tend to break down in about 2 years in sea water, and 3 years in soil. That’s a lot longer than paper. And PLA will only degrade quickly in an industrial composting machine. The marketing language on some websites leads the consumer into thinking the tea bags can be home composted. This isn’t true. If you try and home compost corn plastic, you will end up with a matted plastic mess.
PLA will eventually ‘degrade’ if it ends up on a beach. It not going to break down rapidly in the same way a paper teabag would.
So why are companies switching to PLA? Well, mainly because it can be disposed of in your council food waste bin, if you have one. All food waste goes to industrial composters. It’s also as close to plastic as you can get without using oil, so it does away with the need to buy materials like organic cotton string, which are expensive and fiddly to use.
Here’s the problem: around 50% of us in the UK don’t have access to council food waste collections. In fact, only 10% of our food waste is disposed of this way. And there’s no legal obligation for more councils to offer the service. So PLA is not solving our plastic problem.
If PLA Seals Your Tea, It’s Not Plastic Free
So for about half of us, PLA-based tea bags have to go to landfill. If we try to compost them, we’ll just put plastic (albeit a plant-based plastic) into the soil. They’re not the zero waste solution they are made out to be.
In this article, we’ve marked PLA ‘plastic free’ tea bags as ‘not plastic free’ for those reasons. Ultimately, PLA isn’t really ocean safe, which is the main thing most of us care about.
UK Plastic Free Tea Bags Compared
Let’s look at these tea bag brands in more detail.
1. Are Teapigs Plastic Free?
Teapigs tea used to be my luxury pick-me-up. But I was duped by the plastic free logo on the box. That refers to its wood pulp film bag, a material so like plastic, you’ll do a double-take when you see it.
However, its pyramid tea bags are made from PLA. They look a bit like this.
There’s actually a very good example of greenwashing here on the Teapigs website.
Are their pyramid teabags plastic? “NOPE”….?
Oh, er, sorry, I mean… YEP!
Teapigs calls its plastic ‘corn starch’. I guess it sounds a bit more eco and ‘planty’, but sadly, it’s plastic. Legally, they point out that they’re allowed to call it compostable because it can be composted in industrial conditions (lots of heat and/or pressure that your compost heap can’t generate). As you can see, their website blurb does say that the tea bags aren’t home compostable, but you’ll rarely see this mentioned in their marketing.
Well, I’m one of the people who doesn’t have a council waste collection, so there’s no way of disposing of Teapigs tea bags except the household waste bin.
2. Are PG Tips‘ Tea Bags Plastic Free?
PG Tips has spent a lot of money developing a microsite about its sustainability. It looks impressive until you get to the bit where they say their boxes are still wrapped in non-recyclable, single use plastic film.
But wait – PG Tips has made a transition to what it calls ‘plastic free’ tea bags. Hasn’t it?
Well, no. Again, our pal PLA comes into play, so plastic free is a bit of a stretch.
If you do have a council food waste collection, you’ll be OK with PG Tips. Just stick to the ‘naked’ packaging without film.
No council food waste collection? PG Tips is out. Let’s move on.
3. Will Tetley Tea Bags Ever Be Plastic Free?
They might be. By 2025. If we’re lucky!
Of all the brands we looked at, Tetley’s commitments were by far the least impressive. Tetley basically says that:
- Its packaging isn’t eco friendly
- Its tea bags haven’t been changed
- Its experiments with other sealants haven’t worked.
It actually has some of the worst packaging on our list: plastic-lined paper ‘soft packs’ (paper coated with plastic), which are impossible to recycle.
Tetley says it’ll be eco friendly by 2025. It claims to be trying to reduce plastic waste, but there isn’t a lot of evidence of that actually happening.
4. Are Clipper Tea Bags Plastic Free?
Clipper says that it went plastic free in 2018 – but it switched to PLA, not paper and cotton.
It also says its bags are biodegradable, but since PLA doesn’t break down unless it’s heated up in an industrial machine, this is confusing for consumers. If you bury a Clipper tea bag in the soil, it won’t magically disappear. PLA only breaks down in an industrial composter and should never be placed in a home composting bin.
The Clipper sustainability pages were some of the worst for mixing terms like ‘compostable’ vs ‘biodegradable’. It’s really no wonder consumers are confused about plastic free tea bags when brands are willing to mix terms to make their products sound better.
5. Is Whittard Loose Leaf Tea Plastic Free?
Yes – if you’re careful.
First off, we have to give an honourable mention for its delivery and packaging: Whittard says on its website that it delivers its parcels in plastic free packaging.
Many retailers use endless plastic mailer bags and padded envelopes for items that simply don’t need them, so I’m tempted to give Whittard the benefit of the doubt for actually considering packaging at all. As far as I can see, no other tea brand even makes reference to it, so Whittard is on the right track.
In terms of its tea, Whittard has a range of different products, so I can’t make a call and say it’s a ‘plastic free brand’. It says it’s making the transition to plastic free ‘by the end of 2020’, but it’s light on detail.
Some of its bags have cotton stitching in place of a plastic sealant, so those are definitely your best bet. It also sells loose tea in a tin, and this seems to come without a plastic bag. So you can easily use a strainer or a reusable cotton tea bag and cut out the bag completely.
There’s still a question mark over the packaging across the whole range. It seems this isn’t all eco friendly yet, and they need to update their website with some new information for us to be sure.
However, Whittard does at least seem to have a realistic grasp of the problem, and has one of the best websites to explain its packaging.
6. Is Yorkshire Tea Plastic Free?
Some Yorkshire Tea comes in a cardboard box. That’s about as far as we can get with the eco-friendly angle. Most of the boxes are still wrapped in non-recyclable plastic film. This seems to apply across the entire line (Yorkshire Gold, Yorkshire Decaf, and the Hard Water range).
Yorkshire Tea still makes those gigantic plastic bags full of tea bags too. More single use plastic packaging there.
Finally, its tea bags are still sealed with plastic. It’s making a move to PLA throughout 2021, but that doesn’t really change things for the better.
7. Do T2 Tea Bags Contain Plastic?
T2 has published some alluring, SEO-friendly content about plant based tea bags on its website. To be clear, its tea bags are made from PLA, just like Teapigs’ pyramid teabags.
If a tea bag can only be ‘biologically degraded in industrial composting conditions’, it won’t biodegrade – it’s plastic. Using the word ‘biologically’ here just serves to confuse customers.
Over the past year, the brand has made a song and dance about its ‘plastic free’ and ‘biodegradable’ bags, heavily implying that they can be composted at home. You have to drill right down into the comments to get the full story.
(The ‘environmental conditions’ of the average British compost bin are nowhere near warm enough to break down PLA.)
T2 also briefly mentions silk tea bags on its website. Rather than being real silk, it seems that this might actually be a reference to its older bags which were actually a ‘silk like’ nylon. Allegedly, T2 were rather poetic about this back in the day, and (also allegedly) advised customers to burn the nylon bags to dispose of them – yikes!
T2’s website makes no mention of its packaging that I can see. But just so we’re clear, all of its boxed tea comes in plastic inner bags. (I don’t know if the loose leaf tea comes in an inner plastic bag or not.)
8. Is Pukka Tea Plastic Free?
Pukka is the only UK tea company that has this plastic free tea bag thing 100% sorted.
It has recyclable packaging, and the tea comes in paper bags stitched with organic cotton string. These are the only truly biodegradable tea bags on our list.
Pukka also makes some beautiful tea selection boxes made up with different samples from its tea bag range. The box is made from sustainable card and stuck together with vegetable-based glue.
Update: since originally writing this article, I bulk-bought 6 boxes of Pukka’s plastic-free teabags. I’m quite fussy about tea since I like a strongish Assam type brew. Pukka’s tea tastes ever so slightly more like rooibos, but it’s a really nice quality teabag and I’ve really enjoyed drinking it without milk.
Plastic Free Tea Bags: Full Comparison
If you’re curious, here are the full results of our plastic free tea bag research.
|Brand||Outer Packaging||Inner Packaging||Teabag||Plastic Free?|
|Teapigs||✅ Card||✅ NatureFlex wood pulp film – home compostable||❌ PLA||❌|
|PG Tips||❌ Non-recyclable plastic film||✅ Card||❌ Paper and PLA||❌|
|Tetley||❌ Softpack: non recyclable plastic-lined paper||N/A||❌ Paper and plastic||❌|
|Clipper||✅ Recyclable paper or card||❌ Non-recyclable foil||❌ Paper and PLA||❌|
|Whittard Loose Tea||❓ Tins, boxes, packets – “80% recyclable or compostable”||✅ Home compostable NatureFlex wood pulp film||N/A||❓|
|Whittard Tea Bags||❓ Tins, boxes, packets – “80% recyclable or compostable”||❓ 80% recyclable or compostable||❓ Cotton stitched paper bags are plastic free, rest ‘plastic free by the end of 2020’, doesn’t specify if PLA||❓|
|Yorkshire Tea||❌ Non-recyclable plastic||✅ Boxed tea – card||❌ Plastic, ‘moving towards’ PLA||❌|
|T2||✅ Tins, card||❌ Non-recyclable plastic||❌ PLA||❌|
|Pukka||✅ Card||✅ 100% recyclable||✅ Cotton stitched paper bags, organic cotton string||✅|
So which tea bag wins?
Which Is the Only Truly Plastic Free Tea Bag in the UK?
Most tea bags in the UK are still ‘plastic free except for the seal’. In other words, they’ve spent a lot of money switching from one type of plastic to another. Some, like Tetley, haven’t really bothered to try.
Admittedly, some brands have done more work on their packaging than others. So we have to give Teapigs some credit for leading the way on getting rid of plastic bags, at least.
If you’re a loose leaf fan, I’d personally say that Whittard teas are the best bet for a plastic free cup of tea. Opt for a tin and you’ll solve the potential packaging issue, then all you need is a reusable tea bag.
For actual proper tea bags without plastic, those cotton stitched bags from Pukka are the way to go. Thank goodness there’s one brand in the UK that actually got the message.
Thirsty for more? Don’t forget to check out our plastic free coffee!