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June 02, 2024 5 min read

Hi fellow tea lovers!

As much as we adore cosying up with a steaming cuppa, it's time for a hot tea truth bomb: that innocent little tea bag could be leaching your soothing sips with a toxic cocktail of microplastics, forever chemicals, and more  worrisome additives.

I know, I know - definitely not the natural vibe we're going for. But with a little knowledge, we can all take simple steps towards safer, cleaner sips. So, let's unpack the surprising tea bag chemicals to watch out for and learn how to enjoy a delicious plastic-free brew instead.

The Microplastics Culprit 

If you've been following plastic pollution news, you know microplastics are a growing crisis contaminating our oceans, food, air and has been found in our lungs, blood and even in unborn babies. But you may be shocked to learn how many of these nasty plastic particles could lurk in your favourite tea bag brand.

It was a 2019 study by McGill University researchers that sounded the alarm. They discovered that steeping a single plastic tea bag at typical 95°C brewing temperatures could release  a staggering 11.6 billion microplastic and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles into the water.

Wait, so what are tea bags made off? Most tea bags are made from and sealed with  plastic, either nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET). I was shocked to learn this as I am a big tea drinker! I would never drink from a cup where  a plastic bag had been soaked at 80-100 degrees, so learning what tea bags are made off was a big eye-opener and led me to research paper tea bags.

The Problem With Paper Tea Bags 

Like me, you may think you're in the clear if you avoid plastic tea bags and stick to the good old paper variety. But I learned  that,to prevent these paper bags from dissolving in your boiling water, a harsh chemical called epichlorohydrin or synthetic fibres like polypropylene (plastic) are added. 

If we logically think about it, paper will dissolve when popped into a cup of boiling water.  So, no matter how "natural" brands describe their tea, something  is used to hold their shape and prevent bursting when steeped in high temps. A report by Beyond Plastics cited this as a common issue, with many paper tea bag brands still incorporating plastic to help them.

Potential Health Hazards 

Of course, the major issue with all these microplastics and nanoplastics making their way into our tea is the potential health risks they pose to unwitting consumers.

While  full longitudinal studies are still lacking, there are growing concerns around endocrine disruption, reproductive problems, and even cancer risk from ingesting and inhaling microplastics and associated chemicals.

The McGill researchers found drastic behavioural and developmental impacts when exposing water fleas to the plastics released from the tea bags they tested. Other studies have linked microplastics to cell malformations, hormone disruption, and DNA damage in various organisms.

On top of microplastic and additive contamination, the following plastic-derived additives have recently been  reseached:

  1. Phthalates: A 2023 study also detected traces of phthalates - endocrine-disrupting chemicals used to make plastics more flexible - being released from various paper tea bag samples into the brewed tea (alongside high levels of microplastics).
  2. PFAS: While still an emerging area of research, a 2020 study found detectable levels of PFAS in the dissolved portions of some paper tea bag brands tested, confirming these "greaseproof" chemicals are migrating directly into our mugs. PFAS are a class of highly fluorinated "forever chemicals" that don't naturally break down over time and can accumulate in our bodies. Numerous studies have linked PFAS exposure to increased cancer risk, reproductive issues, liver and kidney damage, and developmental problems in children.

It's just another reason to ditch single-use disposable bags altogether.

Environmental Consequences 

While the health impacts of ingesting microplastics, nanoplastic and plastic additives from tea bags are still  being studied, the environmental effects are  quite clear. Those single-use plastic tea bags don't biodegrade, contributing to the ever-growing plastic pollution crisis on a global scale.

As an example, in the UK alone,  it's estimated that a staggering 61 billion plastic-containing tea bags  are used and discarded annually. When tossed in the compost bin or environment, they contaminate soil and waterways as they slowly break down into smaller and smaller particles over hundreds of years.

For tea drinkers who consume multiple cups daily, that's a lot of persistent, accumulating plastic pollution  needlessly added to our footprint with every sip.

How to Have a Plastic-Free Tea Routine 

We are an educational platform and know that when we know better, we do better. So what can we do?

  1. Email your favourite tea companies to ask them to stop using plastic or plastic fibres in their tea bags. Your voice matters.
  2. If you have tea bags around the house and, after reading this,  you don't want to use them, put it in a tea stainer so you are not wasting tea.
  3. Make the switch to plastic-free, high-quality loose-leaf tea. Not only does brewing with loose leaves allow you to avoid any plastics, adhesives or mystery fibres, but it also unlocks richer flavour and aromatic nuances that get crushed in typical flat tea bags. Just steep your loose leaves in a tea pot or use a plastic-free strainer. If you are looking for a safeplastic-free tea strainer, here are two options we love:
    1. Tea Swag Reusable Bags - These 100% unbleached cotton muslin bags let you easily customise your brew strength with a drawstring. Perfect for on-the-go or at home!
    2. Stainless Steel Tea Infusers - We love our Pipe Tea Infuser  with its curved handle to hang on any mug or our cup teastrainers, or our Cup Tea Infuser which can handle any fine, granulated tea and allows for a bigger brew. They are sturdy, easy-to-clean stainless steel and meant to last forever. 

Beyond the toxin-free brewing, loose-leaf tea tastes fresher and more flavourful than crushed leaves stuffed into paper (or plastic). At Go For Zero, we have a plastic-free selection of premium loose-leaf blends to explore. You can find them here.


The Bottom Line 

While sipping a mug of fragrant tea may seem like the furthest thing from an eco-issue, those convenient plastic & paper tea bag habits harm our health and the planet.

With trusted brands now offering high-quality organic loose-leaf teas in plastic-free packaging, there's zero reason to keep exposing ourselves to microplastics, phthalates, and PFAS with every cup.

When you're due for a tea stash refresh,  be sure to vote with your dollar by opting for loose-leaf tea housed in reusable or easily recyclable materials (unlike plastic). Your mindful morning ritual just got that much more refreshing!

Never hesitate to reach out if you would have any questions at all,

Love,  Ellie x



[1] Hernandez et al. (2019). Plastic Teabags Release Billions of Microparticles and Nanoparticles into Tea. Environmental Science & Technology.https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b02540 

[2] Beyond Plastics (2023). Microplastic Pollution in Tea Fact Sheet.https://www.beyondplastics.org/fact-sheets/microplastics-in-tea 

[3] ABC Everyday (2023). How to Make YourOwn Tea Blends.https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-08-18/make-your-own-tea-blends/102737866 

[4] Kashfi et al. (2023).Microplastics and phthalate estersrelease from teabags into teadrink:occurrence, human exposure, and health risks. Environmental Science and Pollution Research.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37697202/ 

[5] Ali et al. (2023). Health risks posed by microplastics in tea bags: microplastic pollution - a truly global problem. International Journal of Surgery.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10389239/ 

[6] Environmental Working Group (2020). PFAS in Eco-Friendly Food Packaging.https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news/2020/06/pfas-eco-friendly-food-packaging 

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