Driving sustainability in tea bags

Tea bags have come under scrutiny due to concerns related to plastic usage. Bagged tea remains a choice for its convenience, but brands need to find workable sustainability solutions to meet consumer expectations

31 Oct 2023 | By Heng Hong Tan

Woolah teas claim to be brewable up to three times or until the flavour diminishes, and the tea leaves can naturally biodegrade

In Germany, 39% of consumers cite sustainable packaging as the factor that would trigger them to switch tea brands. Furthermore, 43% of US consumers think coffee/tea brands should prioritise sustainable packaging.

Tea bag manufacturers are looking at options to end the use of plastic in tea bags. Petroleum-based plastics like polypropylene are traditionally used as sealants in tea bags.

Consumers now expect their tea bags to be plastic-free to avoid microplastics in their tea, with 25% of Thai consumers willing to pay more for tea packaged in plastic-free bags.

One response to the demand for plastic-free tea bags is the growing use of bio-based biodegradable polymers, such as polylactic acid (PLA) - made from renewable resour-ces such as corn. Many PLA tea bags are marketed as plant-based, biodegradable or compostable to use of bio- based ingredients as opposed to petroleum-based plastics.

However, PLA tea bags do not naturally degrade in the environment and require an industrial composting process for biodegradation, as outlined in the United Nations Environmental Program's Single-use plastics: A roadmap for sustainability.

Plastic-free alternative to bagless
Given the limited biodegradability of PLA-based tea bags, tea brands can explore an alternative solution: bagless tea dips.

Woolah in India has introduced a plastic-free, bagless tea dip that still offers convenience. Instead of tea bags, Woolah's unbroken whole tea leaves are compressed with a string attached to them. These compressed tea leaves unfurl when steeped in boiling water.

Truth about compostable bags
Tea bag producers often use the terms compostable and 'biodegradable' interchangeably when promoting their eco-friendly tea bags.

In India, a significant 70% of consumers are aware that most packaging labelled as compostable can only be composted at an industrial facility rather than at home (For example, one’s garden or backyard.) Nearly the same proportion (69%) understands that degradable and biodegradable packaging are distinct concepts.

This awareness highlights the need for brands to be transparent regarding the specific conditions necessary for their packaging to be truly compostable. For eg, Dilmah New Zealand has made it clear on its website and packaging that its PLA tea bags must undergo industrial composting.

Promoting home composting
Tea brands can focus on ensuring that their tea bags are fully home-compostable, catering to consumers who already practise home composting.

Tea bags made from materials that can be composted at home are ideal for consumers, where industrial composting of household waste is unavailable, and compostable packaging isn't collected curbside.

Home-compostable tea bags are still relatively new, with less than 1% of tea bags launched globally claiming to be suitable for home composting in the year to July 2023, according to Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD). 

Tea bags with home composting accreditation provide assurance to consumers seeking to compost their used tea bags at home. Brands like Duchy by Waitrose in the UK and Healtheries in New Zealand have received accreditation for their home-compostable tea bags with information available on their websites.

Sustainable tea bag packaging
The messaging on tea bag packaging plays a vital role in demonstrating their sustainability credentials. With 70% of Indian consumers having purchased products with sustainable packaging in the past six months to October 20225, it's essential for sustainable tea bags to communicate their eco-friendly attributes on the packaging. This need becomes more pronounced as more tea bags feature environmentally friendly claims on their packaging.

References:
1 Mintel Reports Germany, Tea & Hot Chocolate, 2023
2 Mintel Reports US, Tea and RTD, 2021
3 Mintel Reports Thailand, Tea and RTD Tea (Retail), 2021
4 Mintel 2023 Global Outlook on Sustainability
5 Mintel Reports India, Sustainability for Consumers, 2022



Heng Hong Tan, senior food and drink analyst, APAC, Mintel

Latest Poll

Which is the sustainable packaging product among MSMEs that is most popular?

Results

Which is the sustainable packaging product among MSMEs that is most popular?

Bagasse and biodegradable boxes

 

33.33%

Corrugated boxes

 

33.33%

Paper bags

 

33.33%

Recyclable plastic (bubble wraps, bio-plastic)

 

0%

Total Votes : 3

Events

PackVision Expo 2024

Jun 13 - Jun 13 2024
Pune is set to host its first packa....