It’s Tea Time: High demand for biodegradable single-use tea bags

It’s Tea Time: High demand for biodegradable single-use tea bags
Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, after water. In Europe, 75% of all tea is sold in single-use tea bags. The increasing awareness of the damage tea bags cause to the environment and the human body has boosted the demand for less harmful solutions.
Tea can be served in many ways: mostly in bags, loose leaf, powdered, or in ready-to-drink form (e.g. ice-tea). However, globally, most tea is consumed in loose leaf form, especially true for China, Turkey and India, while the largest share of tea bags is used in the European (75%) and North American (85%) markets. In the UK, even 96%.

A typical tea bag is made of either bleached/unbleached paper or nylon offered in three shapes and two different types of seals:

1. single chamber tea bags are made from a blend of wood and vegetable fibers, an Abacá-based blend, heat-sealed with a thermoplastic, i.e. fossil fuel-based polypropylene (PP) or the plant-based PLA (polylactic acid) on the inner tea bag surface.
2. double chamber, mainly made of the vegetable fiber Abacá, also known as Manila hemp, sealed with either a cotton thread knot, sometimes still with an aluminum staple
3. Pyramid-shaped, mainly made of a nylon blend and sealed the same way as double chamber tea bags.

In Europe, single chamber are already often sealed with PLA
In Europe and North America, about 60% of tea bags are single chamber. To make single chamber tea bags more environmentally friendly, they are increasingly sealed with PLA, even though it is the most expensive sealing solution. In the UK, 65% of all tea bags are already sealed with PLA. PLA is more expensive than PP and not as abundantly available as PP. PLA is often marketed as ‘plastic-free’ as it is derived from 100% renewable sources, such as corn-based fiber. Thus often also called ‘bio-plastics’. The UK Tea & Infusions Association does not recommend PLA sealed tea bags to be referred to as ‘plastic-free’.

Need for plastic-free, home compostable single chamber tea bags
Tea consumers have become increasingly aware of the damage single-use tea bags do to the environment and the human body. Home compost ability of the tea bag is also big on the consumer agenda, as PP heat-sealed tea bags cannot be discarded into the home composter. If not incinerated after disposal, large amount of PP is released into the environment. PLA sealed tea bags need to be industrially composted as temperatures required during the degradation process cannot be reached in the domestic compost.

Tea bags still mainly bleached with harmful chlorine dioxide
Double chamber tea bags, especially used in countries like Germany, can be disposed of in the home composter. They are made of the hard fibers of the textile banana (Abacá) and blended with cellulose fibers often made of FSC® or PEFC certified wood. However, not all materials used for a double-chamber tea bag are completely harmless for the environment and humans. The paper is mainly bleached with chlorine dioxide. Brands, like Neal’s Yard, offer chlorine-free oxygen-bleached tea bags. Also, the paper tags attached to the tea bags contain ink and bleach effecting the decomposition process.

The industry needs new ‘green’ solutions for tea bags
Consumers increasingly expect tea bags to be plastic-free to avoid microplastics and other chemicals in their tea. Brand owners are in search of more plastic-free and home compostable raw materials. New solutions aside PLA are in demand, e.g. dissolvable tea bags made from PVOH, or bagless tea dip on a string. Paper and tea bag producers and even retailers, like Lidl, are already promoting fully compostable ‘plastic-free’ and ‘bleach-free’ tea bags. Most of these solutions can still only claim an industrial compost ability and contain harmful bleach.
In effect, the market is still in need for entirely biodegradable tea bags, created without plastics and chemicals, but solely organic, plant-based ingredients.
Schlegel und Partner has experience in screening markets for new solutions and applications and is able to support the search for a viable solution for single use tea bags in the future.

Are you interested in further information?
Please do not hesitate to contact us:
Dorothea Slevogt
Phone number +49 6201 9915 76,

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