When it comes to enjoying any type of tea, tea bags are usually a go-to over loose leaf tea. Teabags are convenient to use, mess-free, and come in standard portions. It's probably why about 70% of US tea drinkers, according to a Statista survey from 2019, prefer using mainly tea bags. However, a few years back, a lot of attention was drawn to the fact that teabags often contain plastic - making them non-biodegradable and non-compostable. With how common it is to consume teabags, it becomes important to consider the environmental impact of teabags in the long-term.
What are Tea Bags Made Of?
So, why do tea bags contain plastic in the first place? On the surface, it seems like a tea bag is made of some fibrous paper-like material. However, a large portion of teabags found in commercial tea brands are made from a blend of paper and plastic. While paper is biodegradable, plastic isn't - and it can stay in the environment for millions of years.
Commonly used plastics include polypropylene, PVC, and rayon. These are usually used as sealants and or glue in teabags, to prevent them from disintegrating when steeped in hot water. These plastics don't end up just damaging the environment, but they also release an unimaginable amount of microplastics when used to steep tea. A 2020 Study by McGill University that researched 4 commercial tea bags found that in boiling water, plastic-based teabags released around "11.6 billion microplastic and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles into the water."
What are Biodegradable Tea Bags Made Of?
In light of the concern around teabags, many companies have begun making and using biodegradable tea bags to package their tea. But what exactly are these made of? And how do they do away with plastic?
There's quite a few plant-based materials used as an alternative to plastic in teabags. Among the common ones are starch, cellulose, and natural fibers. Starch is usually used to make 'bioplastics,' and common sources include cornstarch. Cellulose and natural fibers mimic the feel of paper - giving biodegradable teabags their usual think paper-like feel. All of these materials are engineered to break down (or biodegrade) in a relatively short timespan, having minimal effect on the environment.
Some teabags are also made from cotton or silk.
However, it's important to remember that not all tea bags labeled as biodegradable are actually so. The actual biodegradability of some of the materials used in these teabags is yet to be fully studied over the longer term. Studies, too, are done under specific environmental conditions to test for biodegradability - conditions which may not always occur in real life. Additionally, companies have, in the past, claimed to have plastic-free teabags while still using polypropylene in their bags. Overall, while biodegradable teabags are a step in the right direction, we still can't be 100% sure that they'll have no impact on the environment.
Are All Biodegradable Tea Bags Compostable?
There's an important distinction to be made about a biodegradable vs a compostable teabag. A biodegradable teabag implies that the materials the bag is made of can break down (into carbon, water, biomass, etc.) after disposal. Compostable tea bags are biodegradable, but must additionally meet US industrial composting standards. In brief, these standards require that the products biodegrade within 90 days, leaving no toxins, and decomposing into a nutrient-rich compost that is both safe and beneficial for plants.