Reading the Tea Leavings

I always wondered about those fancy tea bags—pyramid shaped and seemingly made out of plastic. But in a naïve moment, I figured they must be safe, right? And as a primarily loose leaf tea drinker (pat, pat, pat1) I didn’t think too much about it.

But that changed when I read what seemed to be an exciting “technology and nature combined can save us” scientific study recently. At first, I got really excited: scientists had discovered that tannins (e.g. those chemical from acorns that pucker your mouth) can bind with microplastics and successfully filtered 95-99% of them out of a solution.2 Considering tannins are abundant, natural, and non-toxic and could be harvested sustainability from oak trees or other natural sources (theoretically) it seemed like great news.

Until I read the study.

It turns out to create a uniform source of microplastics, the scientists used “popular tea bags made of polypropylene.” That stopped me in my tracks: these vehicles for tea (which we willingly put in the hot water that we drink) are producing so many microplastics that they become the catalyst for testing microplastic clean up technology! That seems even more wrong than putting microbeads into cosmetics and toothpaste (or PFAS in dental floss), which also both happen but at least in those cases the evil inventors behind the innovation can rationalize that those aren’t being ingested (by humans anyway, lots of things eat these intentionally or unintentionally in the broader environment).3

So of course, I had to investigate. And it turns out, according to a 2019 study in Environmental Science & Technology, a single plastic tea bag steeped at 95°C (203°F) produces 11.6 billion bits of microplastic and 3.1 billion bits of nanoplastics! WTF, I thought! Why, why is that even legal?

Which of these are problematic? Damned if I know! (Image from Skitterphoto via Pexels)

Not a problem?

If you’re like me and are smugly saying, ‘I’m not dumb enough to use those plastic tea bags,’ well, it turns out that those prettily sealed tea bags (the ones without a string or staple) also use plastics and/or glues to keep them sealed, releasing microplastics or hazardous chemicals into your tea as well.

Now I could make this an advice column about how you should drink loose leaf tea and herbal teas you grow or forage near you but I’ll save that for the endnotes4 as I want to make a bigger point.

Also in the news recently, it seems that paper straws are filled with toxins (PFAS again). And even recycled plastics—beverage companies’ solution to the plastic problem—turn out to have more toxins in them than virgin plastics.

These might also be a problem. (Image via PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay)

Ultimately, trying to solve problems with more ‘innovation’ has been bringing us deeper down the hole of unsustainability for as long as sustainability has been a word.

We have to get back to the question of what do we actually need, and even what do we want, versus what do we do mindlessly (i.e. because of habit and cultural conditioning).

I like tea—or more correctly hot liquid with a bit of non-caloric flavoring that may have some medicinal, relaxant, or stimulant qualities. I don’t need a tea bag for that. Sometimes out of laziness, convenience, or curiosity (of an interesting herb blend I can’t make) I buy tea bags. But I certainly don’t need them. Just like I learned to drink without straws years ago. (Though if you really really value drinking out of straws then bring your own stainless steel one5 with you—that is a sustainable and pretty straightforward solution.)

There are many non-problematic solutions to the trouble we’re in. Mostly, though they involve a bit more effort, a bit (or even a lot) less convenience. And maybe simply a bit or a lot less. The truly innovative solution to most of our problems is to consume less. Drink less tea perhaps, or definitely drink tea without tea bags, cold beverages without straws (or with a steel one), fizzy drinks without disposable plastic bottles (home carbonators do a great job, or get a fountain drink at a restaurant, and skip these when they only come in bottles or disposable cups).

Not rocket science or even chemistry—just obvious sustainability advice. And no tannins necessary.

Or is it that we’re seeking a brief moment of respite? Perhaps then we should make our tea drinking experience beautiful as well as delicious. (Image from Anna Pou via Pexels)


1) The sound of me smugly patting myself on my super unsustainable back.

2) As shown by the uncontaminated organs of mice who drank the tea!

3) Of course, they’re going into your skin (and blood), wearing away your gums, and causing other problems, but I’m sure the inventors are good rationalizers.

4) You could grow mint, lavender, chamomile, or sage, and forage nettle, raspberry leaf, clover, mugwort, goldenrod, spice bush, black birch, or sassafras, for a few ideas. If that’s not enough, you could buy bulk teas for a tiny fraction of the cost as buying tea bags. I’ve never had luck growing chamomile so I buy it by the pound—which lasts about a year or so…. Mint on the other hand, grows like a weed so drying some of my summer crop gets me through the winter.

5) Ugh. It turns out that even bamboo straws have PFAS in them, so skip them too.

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2 Responses

  1. Jeff Goldsmith

    This is an unnerving article. I attend week long meditation retreats and they offer tea during the night as you wish (prn). Are all teabags “villains”? Is there a “safe” way to offer tea in bags? or would the “wise person” use loose tea only? I am a medical researcher by history and can review complex articles if needed.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Not all teabags are villains! Certainly from a financial and ecological perspective, loose leaf is the way to go. But it is less convenient at times. If you need a teabag, use one that is tied at the top ideally (not stapled so you can compost) and definitely not a plastic pyramid one nor one that is sealed with a plastic/glued edge. If you research this more, feel free to share what you find!

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