Driving sustainability in tea bags

Driving sustainability in tea bags

Updated: July 19, 2024
4 minutes read

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Brands need to find sustainability solutions to meet consumer expectations

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

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 to various options to end the use of plastic in tea bags. Petroleum-based plastics such as 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), which are made from renewable resources such as corn. Many PLA tea bags are marketed as plant-based, biodegradable or compostable due to the 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’.

Exploring bagless tea dips as a plastic-free alternative

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.

Woolah’s teas claim to be brewable up to three times or until the flavour diminishes and the tea leaves can naturally biodegrade; Mintel GNPD

Clarifying the truth about compostable tea 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 (e.g. 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 instance, 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 practice home composting.

Tea bags made from materials that can be composted at home are ideal for consumers in areas 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 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.

Strengthening the Appeal of 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 through October 2022, it’s essential for sustainable tea bags to effectively communicate their eco-friendly attributes on the packaging. This need becomes more pronounced as more tea bags feature environmentally friendly claims on their packaging.

This article first appeared in the October 2023 print issue of WhatPackaging Magazine.

Heng Hong Tan
Heng Hong Tan

Heng Hong is Mintel’s Senior APAC Food and Drink analyst based in Kuala Lumpur. He comes with over a decade’s worth of experience identifying emerging food and drink trends.

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