Unraveling the Fibers of Silken Tea Bags

TWEET: Nylon versus corn-based PLA – Which tea sachet material will become the fiber of choice?

In April 2013 The Atlantic published a story entitled “Are Tea Bags Turning Us Plastic?” examining the materials used in the increasingly popular “silken” tea sachets and pouches. It raised questions about the safety of these products for consumers.

I first looked at this topic back in 2009 when I examined a wide variety of packaging materials for tea bags as well as for loose and ready-to-drink teas for Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. At that time Helsinki, Finland-based Ahlstrom had recently started promoting a new filter material made of PLA (polylactic acid.) It was appealing for making tea bags because it would keep its shape, while also allowing tea drinkers to see what was inside. It was considered an improvement on the other “silken” products on the market which were made of nylon.

Very few of the companies using “silken” or “mesh” materials in their pouch construction had been communicating that the “silk” was actually nylon. Nylon had been used as a synthetic replacement for silk since World War II. In recent decades, however, consumers have become increasingly attuned to concerns about plastics in food packaging. In a product like a tea bag, which is then immersed in hot water, the worries reached a higher level for some tea drinkers. Nylon is also produced from petroleum which raised environmental concerns for people focusing on being more green in their purchasing. PLA offered an alternative.

PLA was considered a more environmentally-friendly option because it is made from cornstarch instead of petroleum products. Corn is converted into an industrial resin that can be shaped into a mesh form. These products were first introduced in the 1980s but they were far too expensive for regular use. Years of fine-tuning improved the process so instead of costing $200/pound to manufacture, it now costs less than $1/pound. The other advantage commonly cited is that PLA bags are biodegradable and compostable. However, PLA has its own challenges.

Because corn is the primary ingredient of the process and much of the corn supply is genetically modified, PLA loses some of its standing as a more environmentally friendly option. Further research into its compostability raises a few other flags. PLA pouches and sacs will not biodegrade in your backyard compost heap. They can only be broken down in industrial and municipal composting facilities. Since most consumers do not have access to these programs, most PLA tea packaging will end up in a landfill, just like the nylon sacs.

Because of their physically attractive qualities and their association with luxury tea products, it is unlikely that the nylon or the PLA tea pouches and sachets are going away soon. It does seem likely, however, that customers will be asking more questions about their safety and the impact of their use and savvy tea companies should be sure to be equipped with those answers.

— Katrina Ávila Munichiello

©Mystic Media 2013

LinkedIn: In an effort to reduce the use of petroleum-based nylons, some companies have turned to corn-based PLA (polylactic acid) for their tea sachets and pouches. But are they really better for the environment and for our health?