Mass-produced teabags became an unlikely target in the fight against the global plastic binge, after it emerged that the industry-wide sealant that helps hold their shape is made of polypropylene, and not biodegradable.
The delay in the Co-op’s plans reflects the challenges in producing alternatives that neither collapse nor split in the cup. Major tea brands and supermarkets publicly pledged to switch to plastic-free teabags following pressure from a high-profile national petition, but are taking longer than expected to make the changes.
The Co-op, which sells 367m teabags a year, announced in January 2018 that it was in the final stages of creating a fully biodegradable paper teabag. The new bags were expected to go on sale by the end of that year, but delays crept in due to a change in supplier, while a series of prototypes failed to stand up to testing.
Last year, tea drinkers were urged to steer clear of teabags containing plastic after test results publicised in the New Scientist found that a single bag sheds billions of particles of microplastic into each cup.
A team of Canadian researchers from McGill University in Montreal found that steeping a plastic teabag into a single cup at a brewing temperature of 95°C releases around 11.6bn minute shreds of plastic between 100 nanometres and 5 millimetres in size.
Efforts by major brands to switch to plastic-free options have been hampered by Covid-19 restrictions.
In November, Yorkshire Tea, owned by Taylors of Harrogate, which is replacing the oil-based plastic in its teabags with a plant-based plastic called PLA, said it had made the switch to only one-fifth of its products. It is aiming to complete the changes to the rest of its range by June.
The Unilever-owned brand PG Tips – the UK’s largest tea brand – completed the switch to biodegradable pyramid-style teabags in July and is now removing the plastic outer wrap from boxes. “It’s not been without its challenges, but we’re delighted to be the first major tea brand to offer a fully biodegradable cuppa in plant-based packaging,” said Fiachra Moloney, tea director at Unilever UK and Ireland.
Sam Chetan-Welsh of Greenpeace UK, said: “Plastic is everywhere – in our oceans, the food we eat and the air we breathe – but scientists are only starting to understand the health impacts of ingesting the stuff.”
Britons typically enjoy more than 100m cups of tea every day, with sales of tea rising by 6% this year, according to Sainsbury’s.