Plastic-free tea bags: The brands that don't contain plastic and the brands that still do

·11-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Country Living explore which tea bag brands are plastic-free, recyclable and biodegradable, from supermarket own brand tea bags to the main tea brands sold across the UK. Luckily, there are a number of plastic-free tea bags...

Drinking tea is a very British tradition – so much so that we consume 60.2 billion cups of tea each year, according to the UK Tea and Infusions Association. And most of us tea-drinkers choose tea bags rather than tea leaves – 96% in fact.

But are you aware that some tea bags contain plastic? Several tea bag brands use polypropylene, a sealing plastic, to keep their tea bags from falling apart. This plastic is not recyclable or biodegradable.

So, even when you put all your used tea bags in the food waste or compost heap, it can lead to plastic pollution, as not all of it will be broken down.

3 tea bag problems to be aware of:

  • paper tea bags sealed with a plastic glue that makes them non-recyclable or compostable

  • plastic tea bags (the actual bag is made out of plastic, not paper) that begin to breakdown when put into hot water

  • plastic leaking from tea bags into the cup and, in turn, into the drinker

And that's not the only problem, research from McGill University in Canada also found that some types of tea bag leak millions of plastic particles into our drinks not only from the sealing plastic but from the bag itself.

Photo credit: Country Living
Photo credit: Country Living

This problem is linked to tea bags where the actual bag itself is made out of plastic material, not the paper bags that are more common. These plastic tea bags are more often linked to the higher end brands.

The scientists found that one plastic tea bag releases around 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion smaller nanoplastic particles into the cup. Those, in turn, end up in the drinker's digestive system. The findings were published in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology.

What are brands doing about it? (In alphabetical order)

This information was correct at the time of publishing.

ABEL & COLE

Abel & Cole's own-brand tea bags are plastic-free. They are made using SoilOn and are biodegradable. The packaging they come in is made using paper and biodegradable PE and is oxo-biodegradable. On their website (the link is no longer available), they said: "SoilOn is a corn-starch which incorporates biomass material (polylactic acid) originating from plants. And, the best bit is that’s biodegradable and certified by The Soil Association through EU organic regulation. They’re also glue free as they’re sealed together with heat."

As a delivery service for organic food and drink produce, Abel & Cole sell a range of other tea bag brands, most of which are listed below.

You can read Abel & Cole's sustainability updates here.

ALDI

A statement on Aldi's website reads: "By the end of 2021, Aldi has committed to removing single-use plastic from our own label tea bags, switching to biodegradable tea bags and removing the outer plastic packaging. Together, this will remove 80 tonnes of plastic per year."

We have contacted Aldi for an update.

You can read Aldi's sustainability updates here.

ASDA

Country Living spoke to Asda in 2021 about their own brand tea bags which, at that time, were not plastic-free. They said:

"We are always looking at innovative ways to make our products and packaging as sustainable as possible, it’s something our customers and colleagues are really passionate about. We are working hard with our suppliers to look at a number of products this year that we can make more sustainable and our teabags are certainly one line we are reviewing."

We have contacted Asda for an update.

You can read Asda's sustainability updates here.

Plastic-free tea bag brands:

This information is based on our research and may have changed since publication.

✅ Abel & Cole own brand

✅ Clipper

✅ PG Tips

✅ Pukka Herbs

✅ Teapigs

✅ Waitrose Duchy range

Tea bag brands where their plastic status is not clear or still in development:

This information is based on our research and may have changed since publication.

🔸 Aldi own brand

🔸 Asda own brand

🔸 Co-op own brand 99

🔸 Lidl own brand (1-2% of non-biodegradable polymers present in 2021)

🔸 Sainsbury's own brand (as of June 2021, reportedly)

🔸 Tesco own brand

🔸 Tetley

🔸 Twinings

🔸Waitrose own brand Essential Original Blend tea bags

🔸 Yorkshire Tea (bags are plant-based but outer packaging on box is plastic)

CLIPPER

Clipper announced in October 2018 that they had created what they believed to be the first ever completely plastic-free bag, made using natural plant-based materials. With these, you simply make your cup of tea as usual before putting the tea bag in your food waste bin or compost. Clipper tea bags are also unbleached.

On their website, they say: "We switched to a plant-based, fully biodegradable bio-material over a year ago. As a result we have prevented tonnes of polypropylene plastic from entering the waste stream. We’re working on a number of green packaging options, including reducing our packaging weight and improving our recyclability."

You can read Clipper's sustainability updates here.

CO-OP

In January 2018, the Co-op website said: "Our famous Co-op 99 tea will be developed without polypropylene, which is an industry-wide method used to enable tea bags to hold their shape. This could save nine tonnes of plastic every year from being dumped into household rubbish and compost collections."

They hoped to see the new bags on sale by the end of 2018 but there have been multiple delays. Nearly three years later, in January 2021, is was reported that Co-op still plan to launch a range of own-brand plastic-free tea bags.

We have contacted Co-op for an update.

You can read Co-op's sustainability updates here.

LIDL

In 2021, we asked Lidl for an update on their own brand tea bags and they said in a statement:

"The vast majority of tea bags we sell are biodegradable, with just 1-2% of non-biodegradable polymers present in our round tea bags, which is used to help create the seal. These tea bags are still suitable for composting and can either be recycled in home compost bins or added to food waste collections. We are continuing to work with our suppliers to explore alternative materials that can be used instead of these polymers."

We have approached Lidl for an update.

You can read Lidl's sustainability updates here.

PG TIPS

In good news, PG Tips have made the move to completely biodegradable, plant-based, plastic-free tea bags. On their website, it explains:

"PG tips’ Pyramid tea bags are mostly made of paper. In the past, we did use a small amount of polypropylene (the most common type of plastic) as the seal to keep our signature pyramid teabags’ structure intact. Our tea boffins have been busy finding a replacement for polypropylene. And good news, they found it! It’s a plant-based material derived from corn. This means that everything inside our boxes of tea are now plant-based. We’ll raise a cuppa to that!"

You can read PG Tips's sustainability updates here.

PUKKA HERBS

Pukka Herbs tea bags are free of plastic, tied together with organic cotton and are fully compostable. On their website (the link is no longer available), they said: "Pukka doesn’t use this kind of material. Instead, we use a simple stitch of organic cotton and a unique folding process. This means we don’t need to use polypropylene to hold our teabags together and our teabags are therefore free from plastic. We were the first company to ever use organic strings to hold our tea bags together without the need of a metal staple or polypropylene."

You can read Pukka Herbs's sustainability updates here.

SAINSBURY'S

Sainsbury's planned to roll out its first plant-based, own brand tea bags in June 2021. This is part of its ongoing commitment to halve plastic packaging by 2025. The new tea bags are made from renewable plant-based materials, and, unlike the old oil-based plastic tea bags, are industrially compostable.

Claire Hughes, Director of Product, Packaging and Innovation at Sainsbury's said: "This extensive rollout of our new tea bags, is another example of how we are looking to implement new innovative products that will reduce the impact our business has on the environment.

"Our move towards plant-based tea bags has required significant time and multiple trials to ensure that our customers receive the same great quality teabag and we look forward to the roll out in stores this year."

We have contacted Sainsbury's for confirmation that plastic was removed.

You can read Sainsbury's sustainability updates here.

TEAPIGS

Teapigs products include plastic-free tea bags that are also biodegradable.

On their website they say: "You’ll be very pleased to hear that our tea temples have never contained plastic. The temples and the string attached are made from cornstarch, a natural carbohydrate extracted from corn. The label on the end of the string is made from simple, old-fashioned paper. Even the ink on the label is vegetable-based, and everything is sealed with heat – so no glue! As a result, our tea temples are fully compostable with your food waste collection."

You can read more on the process and detail here.

You can read Teapigs' sustainability updates here.

TESCO

Country Living asked Tesco for an update on their own brand tea bags in 2021 and they confirmed they had been working with their supplier to develop a biodegradable tea bag which was to be tested in stores. They aimed to launch these bags in full later in 2021.

Tesco also said they were working to reduce the size of tea cartons and to ensure that any plastic packaging could be recycled at their soft plastic recycling points. This is all part of their 4Rs strategy: remove plastic where they can, reduce it where they can't, reuse more and recycle what's left.

We have contacted Tesco for an update.

You can read Tesco's sustainability updates here.

TETLEY

Despite claiming to be 99% biodegradable, as of April 2021, Tetley tea bags did contain a small amount of plastic.

They have since launched their new Tetley tin as part of the Tesco Loop Trial. The website reads: "Our mission to eliminate single use packaging has taken a big step forward with the introduction of a new reusable Tetley tin.

"In a first for the UK, the new Tetley tins, containing 80 biodegradable tea bags, will be available in 10 Tesco stores as part of a trial to introduce the ‘Loop Zero Waste’ system into supermarkets and convenience stores."

Addressing their proposed plastic-free bag, the website reads: "With 9 million to convert, we can’t change all of our bags at once, but we’re starting with our big sellers of lovely Tetley Original 120s and 240s.

"We want to get these new bags into the market as soon as possible, so for now we’re putting the new bags into our current packaging. So far, we have produced 163 million, with the number growing every minute.

"It will be a little time until you see our new biodegradable pack artwork - but it will be coming to a shelf near you in the not too distant future - so keep your eyes peeled!

"In the meantime, keep checking in here to see how we are getting on with transitioning your favourite tea."

You can read Tetley's sustainability updates here.

TWININGS

Our research suggests that Twinings' claim their loose leaf pyramid tea bag range does not contain plastic and is fully biodegradable. However, their 'heat-sealed' and 'string and tag' ranges do include plastic.

The Twinings website reads: "Twinings We are working with care to make the way we package our drinks more sustainable. Our aim is for all of our packaging to be reusable, recyclable and make our tea bags compostable by 2025, while increasing the recycled content in our packaging. Just one of the ways we are keeping the environment front of mind in the making of our drinks."

We have contacted Twinings for an update.

You can read Twinning's sustainability updates here.

WAITROSE

Waitrose own brand, Fairtrade Essential Original Blend tea bags do contain plastic. It states in the product description on their website that the sachet contains Plastic - PP (Polypropylene) and is therefore not recyclable.

Their organic Duchy range does claim to be completely recyclable on their website although the materials used to make the bag itself are not listed.

We have contacted Waitrose for an update.

You can read Waitrose's sustainability updates here.

YORKSHIRE TEA

The Yorkshire Tea website says: "The bags in all our regular UK Yorkshire Tea boxes are now plant based. Most of the bag is made from natural fibres like wood pulp and the seal is made with PLA - an industrially compostable, plant-based plastic which is much better for the environment when it's properly disposed of. You can find out more about our switch to plant-based tea bags here."

The outer wrap on their tea boxes is made from oil-based plastic (polypropylene). This is what they plan to change next.

You can read Yorkshire Tea's sustainability updates here.

For any brands not mentioned, check their website or customer care contact.

100% PLASTIC-FREE TEA BAG ALTERNATIVES

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