Do Teabags Contain Plastic?
Author: Millennia TEA’s Official Science Steeper - Allison Tannis, MSc RHN
Guide to Avoiding Microplastics and Finding a Better Way to Brew
Some teabags contain plastic that breaks down to form microplastics that end up in your cup of tea. Suddenly, your cup of tea sounds a little less delicious. Called microplastics, small pieces of plastics that degrade from these plastic-containing teabags should concern you. According to recent research. Plastics in teabags may shed billions of microplastics per cup, according to a study from McGill University in Montreal. This is worth STEEPING into! Here’s a guide to help you avoid microplastics and find a better way to brew your tea.
10 Common Everyday Products You Use that Contain Microplastics
- Water bottles
- Plastic food storage containers
- Plastic straws
- Chewing gum
- Plastic bags/packaging
Which Teabags Contain Plastic?
Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are smaller than a sesame seed that forms when plastic degrades. In the laboratory, the Canadian researchers steeped gourmet, pyramid-shaped teabags, called silken bags, from a variety of different brands. These teabags contain PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and nylon. In hot water, the teabag released microplastics and even smaller nanoplastic particles at a shocking amount: billions per cup of tea. One cup of tea brewed using a single teabag contained 11.6 billion microplastic and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles. If you are going to choose to drink tea using a teabag, be sure it is plastic-free. However, if you are choosing plastic-free, know that you can choose tea without plastic!
Where are Microplastics Found?
Collectively, Canadians drink about 10 billion cups of tea a year. If your teabag contains plastic, your intake may be higher. Who would have thought to ask, how dirty is your tea? (We have a blog post on that topic as well!) If you make your tea with bottled water, you may want to switch your water source: microplastics were found in 93% of bottled water tested in a global study. Bottled water consumption plays a major role in anyone’s consumption: consuming bottled water could increase your potential microplastic intake by 100,000 particles per year. Yet, microplastics are found in more than what you drink!
Are There Microplastics in Our Food?
Much attention has been directed towards microplastics in our oceans: estimates suggest 5 to 14 million tons of plastics flowing into the oceans each year. Sunlight, wind, waves, and heat break down the plastics into smaller pieces, that are consumed by the fish, plankton, and whales. Then, we consume the fish. But, it’s important to look upstream! The same process is happening on land where plastics originate. University of Toronto researchers found freshwater systems, such as lakes and rivers, also are contaminated with microplastics. Looking ever further inland, it appears that plastics can be found in the soil crops are grown in. Yes, there are microplastics in our food.
How Many Microplastics Does an Average Person Eat?
Humans unknowingly consume a surprisingly large amount of microplastics! University of Victoria researchers estimate that the average person’s microplastics consumption, based on food items previously analyzed (fish, shellfish, sugars, salts, alcohol, water, and air), is about 70,000 to 121,000 particles per year. The other 85% of what typical North American’s consume (beef, poultry, dairy, and grains) have not yet been examined. (Interestingly, the researchers noted the largest consumers of microplastics were adult men.) So, how much plastic are we eating? Estimates from a study from the University of New Castle say you may be eating a credit card worth of plastic a day.
In a week, you eat about a credit card worth of plastic.
What Can You Do to Avoid Microplastics?
Present in our water, soil, and air, as well as in the clothes we wear, it’s impossible to completely avoid microplastics, but there are some ways to avoid highly contaminated sources, such as bottled water. Even beauty products contain microplastics, from the glitter in cosmetics to the scrubbing microbeads in body washes or face products, avoid body products with polyethylene or polypropylene. Even your chewing gum may contain polyethene. It’s worth it! Preliminary science suggests the consumption of microplastics is harmful to your health.
7 Ways You Can Avoid Microplastics
- Drink Water from metal or glass containers, not plastic
- Choose beauty products without polyethylene, PET, or polypropylene
- Replace your plastic food storage containers with glass or steel
- Eat and drink from steel or paper straws (avoid single-use plastics)
- Chew plastic-free gum
- Wear natural fabrics
- Brew with fresh tea leaves (that you can eat)
What is in Plastic that’s Bad?
Bisphenol A (BPA) along with other commonly used chemicals to make plastics, such as phthalates and brominated flame retardants, are proven endocrine-disruptors that can damage human health if ingested. An endocrine-disrupting chemical is a substance that can alter the natural balance of the body’s hormone system, and affect how organs that respond to hormones function. Studies associated endocrine-disrupting chemicals with various diseases and conditions, including diabetes, obesity, learning disorders, autism, infertility, and some forms of cancer. Harmful phthalates were found in 206 different toys during a safety review by the European Union in 2018, 89% being of Chinese origin. The concern is how research studies show these plastics end up in our water, soil, and our food. The World Health Organization has made an urgent call for the assessment of environmental pollution due to microplastics and its effect on human health.
Are Microplastics Harmful to Humans?
At this point, researchers are not sure of the impact on humans. Studies have noted exposing earthworms to soil containing microplastics experienced decreased growth and increased mortality. Marine life studies note tumors in the liver of fish and concerns about decreased reproduction. Researchers know that at some dose microplastics are harmful to human health, but at what level or to which body part(s) is unknown. Tiny microplastics can be absorbed by the body, could enter body cells, and if small enough, cross the blood-brain barrier. Scientists have made observations of microplastics in tissues that are diseased. There are two areas of concern with microplastics and human health: studies show foreign objects that end up in the body are known to trigger inflammation and exposure to endocrine-disruption chemicals have effects on the body. More research is needed, but likely effects of microplastic accumulation in the human body could include alterations to the immune response, digestive system, nervous system, lungs, and skin.
A Better Way to Brew
Fresh tea leaves are the healthiest way to brew a cup of tea. Fresh tea leaves can be put straight into your cup, and brewed in hot water as the leaves simply float to the bottom of your cup - no teabags or strainer required.
Millennia Tea is organic fresh tea leaves that are hand-picked, washed, and flash-frozen, which can produce a cup tea with 5x more antioxidants than your dried, bagged tea.
Are you ready to make the switch to fresh tea?
Plastic teabags release billions of microparticles and nanoparticles into tea. Environ Sci Technol 2019; 53(32): 12300-12310.
Organic fertilizer as a vehicle for the entry of microplastics into the environment. Science Advances 2018 Apr;4(4):eapp8060.
A detailed review of study on potential effects of microplastics and additives of concern on human health. Int J Environ Res Public Health 2020 Feb; 17(4).
Microplastics pollution as an invisible potential threat to food safety and security, policy challenges and the way forward. Int J Environ Res Public Health 2020 Dec; 17(24):9591.
We know plastic is harming marine life. What about us? National Geographic 2018 June.