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Teabags are Contributing to Plastic Pollution

It’s Plastic-Free July – the perfect time to reconsider the way we use plastic. There are always alternatives to single-use plastic. An Aqua Libra Co water dispenser, for example, has the potential to eliminate hundreds of single-use plastic bottles every day.

Single-use plastic bottles are a huge environmental problem, but they’re not the only one. Because it’s Plastic-Free July, we’re looking at different forms of single-use plastic and exploring ways in which we can live without them. There’s usually an alternative.

So, let’s have a look at teabags.

Britons love tea. Not only do we love tea, but we’re also rather fond of our reputation for loving tea. In the UK, we get through approximately 61 billion tea bags every year.

Brief history of the teabag

Teabags appeared on the American scene around the turn of the 20th century.

Edward Dillingham, from Massachusetts, US, was granted a patent for his Tea Strainer in January 1893. In his application, which was filed October 1892, Dillingham explained:

“My improved strainer is made in the form of a bag, one end of which is left open for the insertion of a quantity of coffee or tea. The open end is then closed, preferably by stitching. A wire formed with a loop at one end is then inserted through the closed bag.”

The bags were made from “strainer cloth woven fine enough to strain tea or coffee”.

In March 1903, Roberta Lawson and Mary Molaren, from Wisconsin, US, were granted a patent for their Tea Leaf Holder. Lawson and Molaren’s 1901 application stated:

“Our object in the present invention is to provide means whereby a small quantity of tea, so much only as is required for a single cup of tea, can be placed in a cup and have water poured thereon to produce only a cup of tea fresh for immediate use.”

These teabags were made from hand-sewn cotton mesh.

The 20th century saw steady technological progress in the production of teabags – in terms of both materials and manufacturing processes. By the 1960s, teabags were being produced in large quantities, at low cost, for fast-growing consumer demand. Mainstream teabags were made of filter paper (wood and vegetable fibre) and a thermoplastic material for strength and sealing properties.

The plastic in teabags

Polypropylene (repeating chain of C3H6) and polyvinyl chloride (repeating chain of C2H3Cl) are petroleum-derived thermoplastics. When they’re heated to a high temperature, they’re malleable, and when they cool, they set hard. The plastic component of a teabag allows it to be firmly sealed, and it also reduces the likelihood of tearing.

In 1996, the first tetrahedral teabag was launched. Being more three-dimensional than its rectangular or circular counterparts, the tetrahedral teabag allows more space for the tea to move and infuse – “more like a miniature teapot”, according to PG Tips’ marketing.

A “miniature teapot” is great for flavour, but a 3D shape needs reinforcement. The tetrahedral teabag, therefore, is typically made from nylon (an umbrella term for a family of synthetic polymers composed of polyamides) and/or polyethylene terephthalate (repeated chain of C10H8O4).

As we all know, plastics take hundreds of years to biodegrade; the teabags we’re using today will still be polluting the environment long after our own bodies have decomposed. Microplastics in the food chain – some so small that they can pass through cell walls – can affect the welfare of an individual animal and threaten the survival of an entire species.


The first artificial polymer ever made was celluloid, invented in 1869 by American engineer, John Wesley Hyatt (1837-1920). This inaugural plastic was made by combining cellulose – one of the most commonly occurring natural polymers – with camphor. It’s ironic that the first plastic was created as a sustainable alternative to ivory and tortoiseshell.

Now that plastic has become such a huge threat to the natural environment, there’s a growing trend, in the plastics industry, for bio-based polymers, which include cellulose, lactic acid, and corn starch. The use of sustainably sourced organic material in the manufacture of bioplastics is great, of course. But a bioplastic is still a plastic. Because an ingredient is a bioplastic, it shouldn’t be inferred that it’s biodegradable. Some are, certainly; but many are not.

Cutting out single-use plastics

There are two ways to eliminate single-use plastic from your tea drinking. Firstly, you can buy loose-leaf tea (if it doesn’t come in plastic packaging); secondly, you can buy plastic-free teabags.

If you want plastic-free teabags, look for the string-and-tag style. Not all of these are plastic free (especially those that are individually packaged in plastic envelopes!), but the string-and-tag bags are the only kind that could be. All-paper teabags are more fragile, of course, than those reinforced with plastic, and if they’re steeped for too long, they’ll disintegrate.

Loose-leaf tea gives you loads of options. It can be bought with minimum packaging, and it’s available from a growing number of retail outlets as a loose product – i.e. unpackaged. As a result of the energetic Refill Revolution, more than 300,000 people have downloaded a free app that signposts the 250,000-plus refill locations who have joined the campaign.

At Aqua Libra Co, we’re doing everything we can to eliminate single-use plastic, and we’re committed to the Race to Zero.

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To talk to us about Aqua Libra Co water dispensers, call 0800 080 6696 or email For a quote, please complete the online quote form.

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