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Is There Plastic in Your Tea?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

healthiest tea to drink

Story at-a-glance -

  • Nearly all tea bags contain plastic woven through the paper to increase the durability of a product designed to stay together inside a cup of hot water for many minutes. The heat releases minute pieces of plastic from the bag, as well as phthalates
  • Since the bags contain plastics, they are not completely biodegradable or compostable and a spokesperson from Twinings Tea recommends tea bags should not be used in compost piles or added directly to soil
  • Dangers from consuming plastics include an increased intake of phthalates, associated with hormone disruption, increased risk of miscarriage and low vitamin D levels
  • By using loose leaf tea, steeped in fresh, pure water with a reusable infuser or tea strainer, you can enjoy the many benefits of tea while avoiding plastic exposure

In the U.S., there aren’t scheduled tea breaks or tea-related routines, but it is still one of the most widely consumed beverages, found in nearly 80 percent of all U.S. households.1

In 2017, Americans consumed over 84 billion servings of tea and more than 3.8 billion gallons.2 Nearly 86 percent of that was black tea, followed by 13 percent green tea and the small remaining amount a mixture of oolong, white and dark teas.

Multiple benefits are associated with drinking tea, including consuming antioxidants, polyphenols and a variety of minerals. Long-term tea drinking may improve blood pressure,3 and studies find green tea improves brain function, staving off cognitive disorders such as dementia.4 But before drinking your next cup of tea, reconsider your use of bagged tea.5

Would You Like Some Plastic With Your Tea?

Tea bags are only slightly more convenient than using loose leaf tea, yet in 2014 nearly 77 percent of the tea made in the U.S. was prepared using tea bags.6 Eighty-seven percent of millennials report regularly drinking tea, and on any given day over half the American population has a hot cup of tea.

While you might imagine the U.K. claims the honor of drinking more tea than any other country, the recognition actually went to Turkey in 2016.7 There are direct links to the amount of tea a person drinks and their risk of serious health problems. However, the majority of tea brewed in the U.S. is made with tea bags, most of which are made with plastic.

How tea bags are manufactured will vary depending upon the brand. Nearly 70 to 80 percent of an individual bag is made from compostable paper, while the remainder contains heat-resistant polypropylene.8 This is done to help prevent the bag from breaking apart in hot water. However, this also means minute pieces of plastic are likely deposited in your drink.

The bags with the highest amount of plastic are those which are crimped and pressed shut, using heat to melt plastic to seal the bag. These are standard square, rectangular or round and crimped and pressed on all sides. Manufacturers place plastic in the paper fibers, which melt when heated to seal the tea bag shut.9

Additionally, some companies treat paper tea bags with a chemical — epichlorohydrin — to prevent tears, which has been deemed a probable human carcinogen.10 It is known to react with water to form 3-MCPD, another possible human carcinogen.11

Don’t Be Fooled by Compostable or Biodegradable Labels

Manufacturers use tea bags with varying degrees of biodegradability. Some use material derived from starch treated by an enzyme to create a compound with a “plastic” character that can be spun into filaments.

As explained above, most bags, including the string and tag variety, contain polypropylene with small amounts of acrylic copolymer emulsions to prevent the bag from breaking down in hot water. But, this also means small pieces of plastic will be left in the soil if you compost the bags. A spokesperson from Twinings Tea commented:12

"We would not recommend that tea bags are used directly on the soil as a fertilizer or soil conditioner, as they are likely to take a longer time to break down. We would recommend that they are composted in a compost bin, or wormery first to optimize the availability of any nutrients for the plants."

Another type of manufactured bags are silken tea bags, often touted as an eco-friendly choice.13 However, despite the name, the bags are made from fossil fuel-based nylon, which lasts forever. Although plant-based plastic is sometimes labeled biodegradable or compostable, just because it's made of plant-based plastic does not automatically mean it will biodegrade.

Biodegradable means the product can be broken down by microorganisms over time. However, there is no stipulation that no toxic residue will remain, only that the product is no longer visible.

Compostable means the product undergoes a biological decomposition and breaks down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass, leaving no toxic residue. Any product making a claim of biodegradability or compostability should quote the standards used in testing, as without this the label is meaningless.14

Dangers Associated With Plastic in Your Food

Plastic will last for hundreds of years or longer, yet most of the products using plastic are used once and thrown away. Chemical additives, used to make the plastic more durable and flexible, are also harmful to the environment and human health. Phthalates, used to make plastics more durable, are loosely bound to the product.

Have you noticed how some flexible plastic products slowly get more brittle over time? This happens as the phthalates are slowly released into the environment. Similarly, when you dip your plasticized tea bag in a cup of hot water, you speed the release of tiny plastic pieces and phthalates from the tea bag.

The dangers associated with phthalates are related to their effect on your hormonal system. They are remarkably powerful hormone disruptors, and recent research confirms they're capable of causing males in all species to develop feminine characteristics.15

Data have demonstrated pregnant women exposed to phthalates have a higher risk of miscarriage.16 The chemicals have also been shown to feminize male genitals and to increase the risk of asthma.17

Phthalates also have negative health effects on adults. In one study, research demonstrated a link between low levels of vitamin D and an increased intake of phthalates.18 These results are important as vitamin D is essential for brain, bone and heart health. Low levels have been linked to a higher risk for depression,19 mental decline20 and chronic migraine headaches.21

Disturbingly, an alarming 10,000 chemicals are allowed to be added to food and food-contact materials in the U.S., either directly or indirectly. You'll find a discussion of the impact plastics have on your health in my previous article, "Are These Perilous Chemicals in Your Food?"

Benefits From Tea Are Extensive

There may be good reason black tea is one of the more popular tea drinks. With each sip, it provides you with multiple antioxidants, polyphenols, tannins and various minerals with impressive health benefits. For example, black tea has been shown to:

  • Improve your gut microbiome22
  • Aid in weight loss23
  • Regulate blood sugar
  • Improve mental focus and energy levels24
  • Fight free radicals,25 thereby improving cardiovascular health26 and reducing your risk of cancer27

High quality green tea is also well-recognized for its disease prevention and antiaging properties. Polyphenols may account for up to 30 percent of the dry leaf weight of green tea, including flavonoids and catechins. One of the most powerful catechins is epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG).

EGCG has been found to positively impact a number of conditions, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. EGCG also helps prevent plaque formation in your arteries and brain, enhances brain function and prevents age-associated brain degeneration.28

Oolong tea is neither a black or green tea but is produced from the Camellia sinensis plant. What sets the four true teas apart (black, green, white and oolong) is their degree of fermentation.

Organic oolong tea, made from the buds and stems of the plant, is described as “slightly fermented and semi-oxidized,”29 and as a result has a taste that falls between green tea and black tea. Oolong tea offers many of the same benefits of green and black tea. It is rich in antioxidants polyphenols, accounting for oolong tea’s positive effects.

Brewing Loose Leaf Tea for a Perfect Cup

Due to limited space, tea bags often are filled with leftover smaller leaves and dust produced when higher grade loose leaf tea is gathered. When you brew full leaf loose tea, there is room for the leaves to unfurl and move freely in the water, resulting in a more full-flavored, richer taste.

Loose leaf tea is also better for the environment as bags are not fully biodegradable or compostable. Brewing the perfect cup of loose leaf tea takes only a minute or two longer than using a packaged bag. It's all about getting timing, temperature and duration right for the variety of true or herbal tea you're brewing.30

For instance, naturopath and founder of Bodhi Organic Tea, Lisa Guy, recommends brewing white and green teas at 158 F (70 C) and black tea at 185 F (85 C). Amino acids, responsible for the rich flavor, are released at lower temperatures. Steeping tea for a long period of time or using boiling water will increase the amount of tannins and result in a more astringent or bitter flavor.31

Brewing a flavorful pot of tea begins with fresh, pure water. To ensure the right temperature, either turn off the kettle before boiling or pour boiling water into a glass or ceramic cup, allowing it to cool before adding the tea leaves. Avoid using metal as it can give the tea an unwanted flavor.32

Add about 1 teaspoon of tea or herbs for every 6-ounce cup you plan to drink. Loose tea can be steeped in a reusable infuser or tea strainer.33 Timing is also important. Guy recommends white tea should be steeped for one to three minutes, while green tea should steep for one to two minutes. Black tea will Infuse the water with full flavor in just 45 seconds to one minute.34

Overall, tea is part of a healthy diet. Although some studies use far higher amounts of EGCG than you'd be able to comfortably get from drinking tea, if you enjoy it, a few cups a day is certainly a healthy and flavorful addition. Just be sure to drink your tea "straight," as adding milk and/or sugar will counter many of the benefits. Lemon juice, on the other hand, will enhance the antioxidant content.