SGS Looks at How Changing Attitudes to Plastics Will Affect Teabag Manufacturers

After water, tea is the second most consumed beverage in the
world. It is estimated 281 billion liters were consumed in 2019 and this is a
trend that is destined to continue to rise.

Around the world, teabags are becoming a staple in many markets.
For example, in the UK 96% of tea is purchased in bag form. Even in countries
where leaf tea is still commonly consumed, the bag is now the primary method
for launching new hot tea products onto the market. In 2017, these amounted to
87% of launches in the North America, 75% in Europe, and even 45% in
Asia-Pacific. The key to its success is its convenience.

Teabags have a problem – roughly 25% of the teabag, excluding
contents, is plastic. Global Plastic Action Plan (GPAP) estimates 8 million
tonnes of plastic leak into our oceans every year and that by 2050 there will
be more plastic than fish in our seas. Thanks to programs such as BBC ‘Blue
Planet’ the issue of plastic is now being recognised by governments and
consumers around the world. Currently, the focus is on more obvious sources of
plastic – single-use straws, water bottles and other food contact products.
Stakeholders need to be aware, however, that the focus could soon shift towards
items such as teabags.

In the UK, around 60.2 billion cups of tea are estimated to be consumed
every year, with most being from teabags. Roughly 96% of UK teabags use non-biodegradable
polypropylene in their construction. This will be released into the environment
is the teabags are not incinerated after disposal.

As a substance, polypropylene is already targeted in many markets
to reduce its use. Under the EU’s ‘Single-Use Plastics Directive’, (EU)
2019/904, plastic use is already being addressed in food contact materials such
as cutlery, plates, and straws. The ban will begin in 2021. No national ban exists
in the US but several local jurisdictions have introduced bans. Even China has
begun to introduce measures to restrict the use of single-use plastic, starting
with straws.

Teabag manufacturers and brands should be aware of the way
regulations are being used to reduce plastic use and stay alert to the
possibility that it will affect them in the future. At the same time, they need
to be aware that consumers are increasingly demanding more environmentally
friendly products with less plastic.

The difficulty for manufacturers is that the meaning of
‘plastic-free’ is not always clear. Some brands are already claiming their
teabags are ‘plastic free’ but this could refer to the use of polylactic acid
(PLA), an alternative to polypropylene. PLA is a bio-plastic made from plant
materials instead of oil. The problem is, many experts, and Directive (EU)
2019/904, consider bio-plastics to still be a form of single-use plastic.

True alternatives to plastic are, at the moment, rather limited.
Obviously, there is the option to use leaf tea. Manufacturers can also stitch
their bags together using cotton thread. Other attempts have so far proved to
be problematic. One manufacturer is currently working with Sheffield University
to design a teabag that will be classed as ‘industrially compostable’ but not ‘plastic-free’.
This means it could go for food and garden waste recycling, but the heat
generated in a domestic compost heap would not be high enough to break it

Creating a truly plastic-free teabag is proving to be difficult
but that does not mean regulators and consumers will not begin to turn their
attention to the amount of plastic in teabags in the future. There is already a
clear advantage among consumers in being able to promote a product as
‘plastic-free’, even if this means free from oil-based plastics.

Stakeholders are now advised to consider the way markets are
likely to develop in the future in order to remain compliant with regulations
and gain competitive advantage.

SGS Food Contact Material Services

SGS offers a comprehensive range of service to help food contact material
are article manufacturers comply with market regulations and consumer
expectations. Services include determination of polymer type, food safety
tests, and tests on whether a material is bio-degradable/compostable. They
provide expert advice on emerging regulations, compliance issues and
documentation review.
Learn more about SGS’s Food Contact Material Services.

For more information, please contact:


Global Technical Manager RSTS &
Operational Integrity Manager

Tel: +49 (0)6128 –
744 235



LinkedIn: sgs-consumer-goods-&-retail

About SGS

SGS is the world’s leading inspection,
verification, testing and certification company. SGS is recognized as the
global benchmark for quality and integrity. With more than 97,000 employees,
SGS operates a network of over 2,600 offices and laboratories around the world.

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