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?

3 responses to “Unraveling the Fibers of Silken Tea Bags”

  1. I never really thought about this issue until I read some of the recent news stories but it’s definitely something worth considering. There are a few companies that offer woven cotton fabric tea bags and I have been turning to those when I’m on the go.

  2. The irony here is that tea bags themselves are a product of the mass convenience consumerism that broke out in the 1950s. When we look at the history of tea bags and how they came to be used everywhere what we really see is nothing more than a cultural extension that the big tea companies came up with decades ago.

    I find it ironic that you write, “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.” For a luxury product, because of tea bags we don’t actually engage with the food product itself and we loose out on the sensory aspect of it. Think of all the things in grocery stores, luxury items are not encased in a wrapping you are not meant to remove. The closest cousin to tea bag tea is boil-in-the-bag rice. Every other item in the grocery store is something you get to unwrap, measure, handle, smell, touch and experience. Not so with luxury tea brands where it is a cheap, boil-in-the-bag experience. I rather feel that luxury tea brands need to start moving their customers in the direction of actually knowing how to brew their tea properly (which is actually pretty easy and totally biodegradable).

    I also stand firmly in the camp that tends to use tea bags to start campfires (except those plastic tea bags – mom always said that burning plastic was toxic…)

    • I completely agree with you Peter that these are an extension or evolution of tea bags. They were designed for convenience and I believe their primary intent was to offer an improvement on the standard bags. We began with square paper filter bags and then round bags were the exciting new development. These new sachets are the latest offering.

      I would not argue with your point that most “luxury” products favor greater emphasis on the quality of the foodstuff. What we need to remember is that one of the reasons these sachets were developed was to address just that issue. Traditional tea bags restricted contents to CTC teas and they were often fairly low quality at that. The sachets gave companies the opportunity to explore using whole leaf and higher quality teas that would have room to expand and the intent was to make them visible to the user. As I stated to another reader, I think most of us purists believe that loose tea in an infuser or loose in a pot or gaiwan is superior, but there must be an acknowledgement that there is a large population of consumers who will always want the convenience of a sachet or bag. The question is whether or not this form factor gets us closer to the real deal.

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