Tea bag plastics cause for concern

After water, tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world.
It is estimated 281 billion litres were consumed in 2019 and this is a
trend that is destined to continue to rise.

Around the world, teabags are becoming a staple in many markets. For
example, in the UK 96 per cent of tea is purchased in bag form. Even in
countries where leaf tea is still commonly consumed, the bag is now the
primary method for launching new hot tea products onto the market. In
2017, these amounted to 87 per cent of launches in the North America, 75
per cent in Europe, and even 45 per cent in Asia-Pacific. The key to
its success is its convenience.

Teabags have a problem – roughly 25 per cent of the teabag, excluding
contents, is plastic. Global Plastic Action Plan (GPAP) estimates 8
million metric tonnes of plastic leak into our oceans every year and
that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our seas. Thanks to
programs such as BBC ‘Blue Planet’ the issue of plastic is now being
recognised by governments and consumers around the world. Currently, the
focus is on more obvious sources of plastic – single-use straws, water
bottles and other food contact products. Stakeholders need to be aware,
however, that the focus could soon shift towards items such as teabags.

In the UK, around 60.2 billion cups of tea are estimated to be
consumed every year, with most being from teabags. Roughly 96 per cent
of UK teabags use non-biodegradable polypropylene in their construction.
This will be released into the environment if the teabags are not
incinerated after disposal.

As a substance, polypropylene is already targeted in many markets to
reduce its use. Under the EU’s ‘Single-Use Plastics Directive’, (EU)
2019/904, plastic use is already being addressed in food contact
materials such as cutlery, plates, and straws. The ban will begin in
2021. No national ban exists in the US but several local jurisdictions
have introduced bans. Even China has begun to introduce measures to
restrict the use of single-use plastic, starting with straws.

Teabag manufacturers and brands should be aware of the way
regulations are being used to reduce plastic use and stay alert to the
possibility that it will affect them in the future. At the same time,
they need to be aware that consumers are increasingly demanding more
environmentally friendly products with less plastic.

The difficulty for manufacturers is that the meaning of
‘plastic-free’ is not always clear. Some brands are already claiming
their teabags are ‘plastic free’ but this could refer to the use of
polylactic acid (PLA), an alternative to polypropylene. PLA is a
bio-plastic made from plant materials instead of oil. The problem is,
many experts, and Directive (EU) 2019/904, consider bio-plastics to
still be a form of single-use plastic.

True alternatives to plastic are, at the moment, rather limited.
Obviously, there is the option to use leaf tea. Manufacturers can also
stitch their bags together using cotton thread. Other attempts have so
far proved to be problematic. One manufacturer is currently working with
Sheffield University to design a teabag that will be classed as
‘industrially compostable’ but not ‘plastic-free’. This means it could
go for food and garden waste recycling, but the heat generated in a
domestic compost heap would not be high enough to break it down.

Creating a truly plastic-free teabag is proving to be difficult but
that does not mean regulators and consumers will not begin to turn their
attention to the amount of plastic in teabags in the future. There is
already a clear advantage among consumers in being able to promote a
product as ‘plastic-free’, even if this means free from oil-based
plastics.

Stakeholders are now advised to consider the way markets are likely
to develop in the future in order to remain compliant with regulations
and gain competitive advantage.

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