Demand for Plastic Free Tea Bags Affects Packaging Changes

Tea is the leading beverage consumed worldwide – after water – but the tea bag format has historically not been environmentally friendly. This is changing as consumers, particularly in the UK, are demanding sustainable packaging for tea bags.
By Anne-Marie Hardie

Tea bags have been in existence for over a century offering consumers a convenient alternative to enjoy their favourite cup of tea. However, in the last decade, the industry has seen a dramatic shift in the solutions from the nylon pyramid sachet which responded to the premium market to sustainable materials. Today, consumers are taking a deeper look at what is in their tea packaging and demanding manufacturers respond to their need for a plastic free, biodegradable alternative. These concerns have resulted in a dramatic shift in the industry, with manufacturers actively looking for the right solution for their target market.

Sustainable solutions are not new for the tea industry. In fact, companies have been providing ecological alternatives for over a decade. Manufacturers are looking at the sustainability of the materials, the ease in manufacturing and how the product infuses the tea, including that the material is taste neutral.

“If you are selling specialty teas, you have to be concerned that your packaging accomplishes a couple of things,” said Ned Heagerty, president of Silk Road Teas, based in San Rafael, California. “One, the packaging [must] in no way interrupt the flavours, that is, the taste the tea maker has created in the tea. You want the packaging to allow the maximum amount of flavour to make it to the cup. Secondly, you want the packaging, in this case, a sachet, to facilitate the leaves opening fully thus bringing the full extent of the aroma and taste to the consumer.” Silk Road Teas uses corn starch as the base ingredient for its tea bags.

Global paper supplier, Glatfelter CFBU, has invested heavily in creating sustainable paper options. Much of the Gernsbach, Germany-based company’s paper pulp comes from high quality abaca (manilla hemp) and other natural fibres, providing a sustainable basis for filter papers for their tea and coffee clients. A natural fibre derived from the leaf sheaf around the abaca plant, the plant thrives without the use of insecticides and pesticides, while also preventing damage from soil erosion. Glatfelter founded the Catanduanes Abaca Sustainability Initiative (CASI) and had partnered with the Rainforest Alliance (RA) to ensure that the abaca was sourced sustainably. This investment has improved the income of over 500 smallholder farmers as well as providing their clients with a sustainable renewable resource for RA-certified filter paper.

Ahlstrom Munksjö, based in Pont-Eveque, France also invested in sustainability over a decade ago. “For us it’s not a new story,” said Veronique van Zyl Delannoy, head of marketing, food pack and beverage. “We invested in the polylactic acid (PLA) trend over 10 years ago, when bioplastics was still fairly new in the market; the change was simply a no brainer.” Ahlstrom Munksjö’s initial sustainable fibre, Bioweb, offered specialty tea manufacturers an alternative to the standard nylon sachets. The new format was constructed from a transparent premium polylactic material, that was taste neutral, and could be manufactured on either ultrasonic or heat-sealing equipment.

UK-based Teapigs also placed sustainability as a top priority. From the beginning, its tea sachets were manufactured from biodegradable cornstarch. However, in 2017, wanting to be known as the greenest tea company out there, Teapigs converted all their polypropylene clear inner bags to the wood pulp film NatureFlex, produced by Futamura, Nagoya, Japan. This innovative biofilm, which is heat sealed, has been certified industrial and home compostable. In addition, Teapigs’ tags are printed with vegetable-based ink ensuring that they will decompose in an industrial compost. In May, Teapigs was awarded the Plastic Free Trust Mark from A Plastic Planet in recognition of its plastic-free products (see page 27).

Growing numbers of tea drinkers have recently become acutely aware of tea-bag packaging and are asking for change. “There has been a wave of interest from both the consumers and the press in plastic free, with many companies scrambling to become plastic free by 2020,” said Andy Byron, sales executive and trade marketing, Teapigs, Brentford, England.

When it comes to the plastic in tea bags, Kai Wulff, marketing director, Glatfelter, stressed, that is important for consumers to first understand that the amount of plastic traditionally used in tea bags is minimal. The main components of tea bags are comprised of natural fibres; the plastic, which has been brought up in the media, is simply used to thermally seal the tea bag. “All ingredients in filter paper adhere fully to all the food regulations and the final filter papers are completely safe for use and do not adulterate the tea liquor,” he explained.

However, alternate solutions do exist – in fact, Glatfelter invested in a biodegradable thermoplastic solution for heat sealable papers some years back, but the market was still not ready for it. “At the time, the concern about plastic and degradability of filter paper was still fairly minimal,” said Wulff.

Partially propelled by the TV documentary Blue Planet 2 in the UK, there has been an increased push for the reduction of plastic in the grocery aisles, including a plastic free aisle. At the same time, there has been a growing awareness of what was in fact in the tea bags, and a dramatic response from consumers requesting that manufacturers change their tea bags.

It was the residue in his home compost that alerted Wrexham, England-based gardener, Mike Armitage, that there was plastic in tea bags. After further research, he identified that this residue was a direct result from the plastic sealant in his PG Tips tea bags. Motivated to make a change, Armitage started a petition addressed to Unilever, which markets the PG Tips brand, to remove the plastic from its tea bags. The petition garnered over 200,000 signatures and has shifted how tea bags are being produced throughout the UK.

“It’s been a big wake up call, consumers are addicted to single use plastic and there is now a motivation for change,” said Byron.

Making the Sustainable Switch

Co-op Food, based in Manchester, England, in partnership with Ahlstrom and Typhoo, was one of the first major brands to convert its material to a sustainable alternative, opting to use Fibre+. Ahlstrom launched its sustainable packaging solution in March, responding to the need for a cost-effective biodegradable tea bag. “The material responds to the requirements of the plastic-free label,” said van Zyl Delannoy. “At the same time, it can be used on existing machinery without any change in appearance.”

For consumers, there is essentially no difference in their experience, aside from the affirmation that they are now opting for a plastic free product. Unilever’s PG Tips followed close behind announcing that all polypropylene-sealed tea bags on the market would be replaced with biodegradable, polylactic acid, derived from cornstarch, by the end of 2018.

For tea companies that are seeking a non-GMO alternative, One Earth, based in Naples, Florida, has recently released a polylactic filter paper comprised of sugar cane. “Consumers are seeking tea bags that are non-GMO and completely transparent so that they can see the tea,” said Erin Heryford, managing director, One Earth, adding that consumers also want gluten and allergen-free tea. One Earth’s rolls can be used to create tea bags in a variety of widths and shapes, including pyramids and the ability to seal the bag in the middle so that a logo/brand name can be easily embossed on it. The product will work on any new machinery, although Heryford recommends an ultrasonic heat sealer as the product currently doesn’t include a string or tag. “We are currently seeking a compostable string or tag alternative,” she said. “For now, our clients can have their logo directly embossed onto the bag.”

BAM Packing, Inc, a co-packer based in Los Alamitos, California, has recently developed a partnership with One Earth providing the sugar cane biodegradable alternative to their tea packaging clients. “Sugar cane filter paper is the new and upcoming thing,” said Donna Cook, president, BAM Packing. “It responds to so many packaging concerns including transparency, biodegradability and non-GMO.”

When planning the packaging for its teas, Silk Road Teas made two immediate decisions. “First, we put the highest grade of tea leaf we could into a sachet format. Traditionally, teas in tea bags and sachet packaging have been typified by lower grades of tea and blends,” said Heagerty. “Secondly, we believed that we could create local jobs by doing more packaging in-house. Toward that end, we have adults with disabilities packing our sachets into bags and tea boxes. We took a job that is usually automated and gave it back to workers creating job opportunities.”

The Need to Educate Consumers

To respond to the environmental concerns of consumers, manufacturers need to educate how to properly dispose of the polylactic bags. Home composts, such as the one that initially created the concern in the UK, will not be able to break these bags. PLA (polylactic acid) requires particular conditions, including temperature, oxygen level and microbes to fully biodegrade. These conditions can only be achieved at an industrial compost. To ensure that the bags are disposed of appropriately, consumers need to be advised of these parameters and how to dispose of the bags.

“Here in the UK, 78 percent [of consumers] cannot get their products to industrial compost, due to the lack of infrastructure,” shared Chris Law, sales and marketing manager, Union Papertech Ltd, Heywood, England. “The remaining 22 percent either send [their waste products] to an industrial compost or anaerobic digestion.” This has posed a challenge for Union Papertech, and the industry at large, as without the appropriate infrastructure available, the PLA tea bags will not decompose.

Law hopes that the infrastructure will catch up and respond to the industry’s need. But in the meantime, Union Papertech is actively seeking an alternate solution to provide to consumers, one, that ideally will biodegrade at a home compost.

Finding a material that maintains the same strength as polypropylene is a challenge,” said Law. “In tests, polypropylene will retain its seal for up to two hours when brewed in boiling water. PLA will last approximately ten seconds, which is not long enough to brew tea.” One of the key challenges is finding a viable alternative that can respond to the commercial capability. This includes the cost of the new material and cost to modify the existing machinery.

Union Papertech is working with A Plastic Planet to find ways to improve the infrastructure as well as to educate consumers on the terminology. Their goal is to find a product that will fully break down in a home compost. “Are we there yet? No.,” said Law. “But we think it will be in the short term. We will find the right solution.”

Van Zyl Delannoy said there is no question that consumer demand is driving where the materials are going. “There is an increased preference for premium teas, consumers want to know what is in it their tea. Overall, it has been a huge awakening for the consumers, so it should come as no surprise that the sustainability aspect has become a factor.”

Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer, professor and speaker based Barrie, Ontario. She may be reached at: [email protected].

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