The global movement to wean off plastic has led to concerns about single-use plastic teabags, deeming them wasteful and potentially dangerous. New research by a team at at McGill University found that a teabag submerged in 95ºC water, released 11.6 billion units of microplastics and 3.1 billion smaller nanoplastic particles. The researchers are suggesting that contact with boiling water makes the teabags shed higher numbers of plastic particles or leach toxic substances.
This quantity of microplastics is larger than the estimated amount consumed by a person over an entire year (50,000) and so the question remains as to whether the consumption of these plastics is harmful to the human body. Worryingly, when exposed to these levels of micro and nanoplastics, water fleas were noted to show anatomical and behavioural abnormalities. For a nation that consumes up to 60.2 billion cups of tea a year, this has caused concern and while there is as yet no evidence that the plastics affect human health, the United Nations has said more research is needed to fully understand the effect plastics have on the body.
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic created by the disintegration of plastic litter that are too small to be caught in water filtration. Microplastics have been found in the air, soil, rivers, oceans, as well as bottled water and seafood.
It is not only plastic tea bags that contain chemicals, 96 per cent of paper tea bags sold in the UK contain polypropylene – a chemical compound used to seal them. This non biodegradable heat sealant can make up 25 per cent of the bag.
A further concern being raised by recycling experts is for soil that gets littered with composted plastic teabags. By 2018, some brands such as the Co-op and PG Tips had already adopted 100 per cent compostable tea bags due to public pressures. While Lidl is exploring the option for biodegradable tea bags, Yorkshire Tea is aiming to switch to plant-based materials by the end of the year. The most eco-friendly tea however, remains loose leaf in a pot or cup.
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