Follow the Leader: Tea Bags

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.


Patent for first tea bag
Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren of Milwaukee, Wisc., first applied for a patent in 1901. Their purpose is to make a single cup of tea. (Image credit: U.S. Patent Office)

Less than 5% of the tea bag material manufacturedglobally is Nylon or PET (polyethyleneterephthalate) the materials investigated at McGill University,but that still amounts to several billion tea bags annually.  Alibaba lists 1,000 nylon silk distributorsand more than 5,000 nylon tea bag options (note the lowercase nylon, a genericdesignation for a broad category of synthetic polymer fibers). Consider alsothat there are several types of biodegradable nylon and that some plant-basedplastics 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 TeaSpot, we’ve been proponents of pyramid sachet materials which are made fromplant-based alternatives to nylon and polyethylene, and which arebiodegradable. We made these choices primarily with zero-waste and low carbonfootprint environmental considerations in mind. Our biodegradable sachets aremade from bioplastics derived by lactic fermentation of plant starchmaterial. 

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. 

Maria Uspenski
Founder & CEO,
The Tea Spot

Newby produces only the finest quality teas andhence the packaging was always important for us.  There is no point in buying the best if youcannot preserve the quality for the consumers to enjoy. Using the bestmaterials available was always our moto. Where possible we used the best,sometimes even revolutionary packaging materials. The safety and the quality ofour product was at the forefront of our mission. However, for us the focus inthe last 5 years has evolved from ‘best packaging’ to ‘less and safepackaging’.

We have always used biodegradable materials in thebags themselves. All Newby teabagsand pyramid bags are plastic-free. Fully biodegradable, our SilkenPyramids are made from corn starch while our Classic Teabags are made from amixture of wood pulp and abaca which is a natural plant fiber.

We were the only luxury tea brand to move ourproduction from Europe to India in 2005 to reduce the voyage the tea makes inorder to be packed. This allowed us to reduce the production time and subsequentlyour carbon footprint.

We are probably the only tea company to use alu-foilfor the teabag sachets when most companies use pure plastic. The biggestchallenge for us now is to replace the foiled sachets for our teabags with fullybiodegradable options. We have removed all plastic overwraps from our classicteabag products, as well as all plastic lamination on the cardboard boxes. Weare working really hard to reduce the packaging amount further.

Speaking about the future of the teabags, thepyramid bags have been by far the fastest growing category of our product rangein the past few years powered not only by consumers looking for better qualityproducts 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-termthreat of disappearing, with around 90% of modern tea consumption consisting oflow quality cheap teabags, for us as a premium tea supplier, it is obvious thatthe 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 cheapteabags, the manufacturers will not be able to provide quality product at theprices dictated by the market and supermarket industry. Good can’t be cheap andcheap can’t be good.

In the short-term, we motivate consumers to switchto quality loose leaf tea which is the most sustainable option. Sounds like alot of work for many, but in reality, it takes perhaps a minute or two morethan a teabag and helps to save the planet.     

Aneta Aslakhanova
Global Marketing Director, Newby Teas UK

We’ve received a number of questions about thesafety of our tea pouches in response to recent articles on the CBC News andCNN websites.  We want to assure you that at Mighty Leaf Tea, the qualityand safety of our tea is our greatest concern.  The study cited in thearticle did not test Mighty Leaf Tea pouches or the materials they are madeof.  The study, which sought to determine whether certain plastic teabagscould release microplastics and/or nanoplastics during a typical steepingprocess, tested PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and nylon pouches. Mighty Leaf Tea pouches are not made from either PET or nylon.  MightyLeaf 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 allapplicable food safety regulations.

Eliot Jordan
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 extensiveresearch into the tea bag materials being used around the world and were awareof the issues around contamination.  Wediscovered that nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bags which arepetroleum based non-biodegradable plastics were releasing concerning amounts ofmicroparticles and nanoparticles into tea when brewed in water at highertemperatures.

As result of our findings we managed tosource a safe product and solution to the contamination problem.  Yamanaka Industry Co, Ltd has created amaterial called Soilon™ that is composed of bio-based, non-oil basedbiodegradable polylactic acid (PLA) derived from plants.  We have been using his product for our allour tea bags since we began bagging tea. We believe this type of fabric should be the industry standard.

The current concerns circulating regardingcontamination are not only a concern to the general population and the teaindustry but to our company.  We areconcerned that there is an increasing assumption that all tea bags with a similar appearance to the Nylon bagsare made of the same material when in fact companies like Australian TeaMasters are spending the time and resources to research and deliver a morehealth 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.

Sharyn Johnston
Australian Tea Masters

I thinkit’s important that we are responsive to the concerns of consumers. The notionof consuming microplastics in one’s tea threatens the “health halo” that thetea industry has enjoyed for years.  

Whether ornot the McGill University study’s daunting numbers of plastic particlesreleased from a single pyramid tea bag poses a health risk to humans isn’tworth debating. The fact is, more of these microplastics are being consumed inour food chain and what’s troubling is the cumulative effects that these mayhave 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.

Jhanne Jasmine
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 releasedare broken down into water and carbondioxide in the human body. Implants, suchas bone pinsused in medicaltechnology, are an exampleof their application. These remainin 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 randomlypurchased bags are not representative of the market.

The manufacturers of the materials have, of course,commissioned counter-studies.However, these requiretime. We willshare them with you as soon as we receivethe 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.

Holger Lohs
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.

Joshua Kaiser
Founder and President, Rishi Tea
& Botanicals