Sarah Clifford-Smith investigates how billions of micro-plastic could be polluting your morning brew.
Photo by Clay Banks
A recent Canadian study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology has found that tea bags release billions of micro-plastics when submerged in boiling water.
The scientists conducting the study found 11.6 billion micro-plastic and 3.1 billion nano-plastic particles were released from just one tea bag. The release of such particles is accelerated by high temperatures, so the boiling water used to make our morning cups of tea is allowing high volumes of the micro-plastics to enter our cuppas.
The History of Tea
The drinking of tea originated in China, with tea bags first making their way to the West for commercial consumption in the early 1900s. They were favoured for their convenience, however the tea put into the bags was often comprised of leftovers from tea processing factories producing lower quality tea. The first tea bags were made using gauze sacks.
Today, the bags are commonly made with filter paper, however polypropylene, a type of plastic, is used to seal the bags; this makes many tea bag not fully biodegradable, with some premium brands making their bags entirely from plastic.
The World Health Organisation has been investigating the possible health implications of human consumption of plastic; although they have not found health risks with the current level of plastics in products, their findings thus far are based on little evidence as micro-plastic research is still a new area of science.
Plastic that is twenty microns (each micron being a thousandth of a millimetre) or less can enter our bodies through the intestines instead of passing through and out of the body. A recent study has found that when immune cells come into contact with micro-plastics, they die three times faster than other immune cells. This calls into question what effect micro-plastics this could have on the human immune system as more and more are finding their way into our bodies.
An average person could be ingesting approximately 5 grams of plastic per week. The equivalent of one credit card - WWF
Plastics in tea bags have more far-reaching consequences than just our bodies. Most tea bags get thrown in the bin and end up in landfill. The small plastic particles can seep away into water supplies, ending up in the oceans and soul.
Once these kind of micro-plastics end up in the oceans, fish mistake them for food, allowing them to move their way up the ocean food chain and can eventually end up back on our plates. Plastic particles can then pass through our bodies and end up in the sewage system. Though tea bags only contain small plastics, they are sold and used in extremely large quantities across the globe, meaning they can build up and have a significant impact.
Making a Change
Some brands have been conducting trials and research into creating plastic-free, fully biodegradable tea bags. The spotlight fell on tea bags when campaigners demanded that tea companies rid their products of plastic.
Teapigs has been quietly leading the way in environmentally-friendly packaging. They were the first tea bag company to be certified plastic-free, as well as sustainably source their tea, priding themselves on selling whole tea leaves in their bags instead of powders.
Other large tea brands, such as PG tips, Clipper and Pukka are not yet plastic-free, but are trialling new more sustainable materials.
Another option is using a pot and loose tea leaves or using a strainer for one mug of tea, but most tea leaves sold in supermarkets come in plastic bags. When the alternative is introducing micro-plastics into our bodies and oceans, is it really worth it just for the convenience of making a cuppa quickly?
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