The Current

Tea bags are bad for the environment, and bad for your brew, says tea expert

Henrietta Lovell travels the world sourcing and supplying the best tea, with a business model focused on environmental and economic sustainability. Her new book describes her mission to lure the world away from industrially produced tea bags, to using loose leaf tea instead.

'You're drinking nanoplastics, glue, bleaches, chemicals,' Henrietta Lovell says of newer 'silken' tea bags

Henrietta Lovell travels the world sourcing and supplying the best tea, with a business model focused on environmental and economic sustainability. (Submitted by Henrietta Lovell)

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Single-use tea bags are bad for the environment — and bad for your afternoon brew in general, according to a world-famous tea-seller.

"Teabags have nanoplastics in them. They're in the sealants, they're in the paper, and of course, you've also got glue," Henrietta Lovell, founder of the Rare Tea Company, told The Current's guest host Jayme Poisson.

"You're drinking nanoplastics, glue, bleaches, chemicals."

In September, a McGill study estimated that one cup from a plastic or cornstarch-based tea bag could contain 11.6 billion microplastic and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles.

Lovell added that even paper-based bags aren't free of environmental concerns, since they require trees to be felled.

"You're going to use it once and throw it away and it's going to hang, dangle over the side of your cup," Lovell said. 

A single-use tea bag isn't sustainable, says Lovell. (Shutterstock / slawomir.gawryluk)

Lovell's new book Infused: Adventures in Tea describes her mission to replace industrially produced tea bags with an appreciation for the best quality leaves.

She says that even though tea bags were invented in 1901, "most tea drinkers didn't adopt the practice" until the 1970s.

Their popularity increased with the rise of convenience food such as TV dinners, or re-hydrated potatoes, she said.

"We thought we were being very modern and very cool," she said, but noted that many other food products from that era have since faded in popularity.

"We know they're not particularly good for us," she said. "Convenience isn't the only arbiter of taste."

Lovell explained that a tea bag can prevent the dried leaves from expanding and unfurling to their fullest while brewing in hot water.

"If you really love tea, you wouldn't put it in a bag — it's like putting Baby in the corner," she said.

Instead, she recommends brewing loose leaves, which allow the tea to "grow and unfurl and rehydrate" when it hits the water.

Lovell picking jasmine flowers in Fujian, China. (Submitted by Henrietta Lovell)

Lovell says that the way tea bags are produced may dull the tea's flavour, leaving it with a "flat, tannic" taste.

Loose leaf tea, she says, can instead be used for three to five brews, each with giving "deeper and more interesting infusions each time," as long as you completely drain the water after every use.

"We call it the lady of the tea world — you can infuse it over and over again ... whereas a teabag we call the floozy," said Lovell.

"She gives it all up straight away, and then you have got to throw her away."

Lovell in a tasting room with a range of teas. (Submitted by Henrietta Lovell)

An 'affordable luxury' that helps farmers

Lovell founded the Rare Tea Company in 2004, hoping to start "a small revolution where people could perhaps appreciate the purest, most beautiful teas." 

The company's website says it sources tea direct from farmers — cutting out middlemen suppliers — and supplying chefs, restaurants and bars globally.

"I will buy tea from the farmer at the price he sets for economic sustainability, rather than relying on a commodity market where I might get a better price, but the farmer might really suffer," she explained.

That means she can offer what she calls an "affordable luxury" of high-quality tea that costs 10 to 20 cents more a cup than the bagged variety.

Lovell wants people to ask themselves: "Do I really want this cheap industrial teabag that's made by the big, big guys to maximize profit for their shareholders?"

"If you just go to the supermarket and buy the cheapest teabag, that continues. If you demand something better, then the world changes," she said.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Karin Marley.