Tea is the second most consumed drink in the world after water. While tea leaves are still used widely, in many tea-drinking countries, tea bags are favoured by consumers. In fact, in the UK 96 per cent of tea consumed is bagged. However, the plastic in tea bags has a damaging impact on the environment. Today as nations around the world struggle with recycling challenges, growing landfill volumes and plastic waste in oceans, consumers, companies and regulators alike are pushing to reduce the use of plastic in packaging. One of our creative teams rapidly innovated around a new plastic-free tea product, the tea sheet, which could eliminate plastic waste from one of the world’s most popular and healthy beverages.

Key successes

  • Created a 100 per cent plastic-free, sustainable and home compostable tea sheet
  • Filed for two international patents
  • Developed a working minimal viable prototype (MVP) in three months

Tea's plastic webbing adds to world's plastic problem

Sustainability is increasingly viewed as part of corporate social responsibility. Companies know that of the 300 million tonnes of plastic generated each year, 50 per cent is single-use. In addition, plastic takes up to 1,000 years to decompose in landfills. Consumers are increasingly buying sustainable goods to reduce their environmental footprint and leave the world in better condition for future generations. And regulators are forcing change with new mandates. In April 2022, a world-leading new tax on the production and import of plastic packaging with less than 30 per cent recycled content is due to come into effect in the UK.

The popular tea bag is composed of 80 per cent paper and 20 per cent plastic. The plastic plays a vital role in sealing bags shut and preventing tea leaves from leaking into the hot water, but these plastic webs don’t decompose and are adding to the world’s plastic waste problem.

“People around the world have been using tea bags to make tea for more than 100 years,” says Viju Vasishta, PA sustainable materials expert. “It was exciting to think of ways to disrupt this traditional part of daily life to make it more sustainable and add value to both companies and consumers alike.”

Rethinking tea-drinking to be more sustainable

As we met with a leading beverage manufacturer to discuss sustainability imperatives, we realised we could transform tea packaging to be more sustainable. Back at our Global Innovation and Technology Centre, a team of creatives, consumer experts and material scientists conducted multiple experiments to create a new format to hold tea leaves in place without disintegrating in hot water. This process included consumer understanding, sustainable materials research, understanding of tea science and diffusion, product design and development, and manufacturing development.

After testing multiple pulps, adhesion technologies and product forms, the team created a sheet made of lokta pulp that held its strength in boiling water without disintegrating. After trying multiple methods, the team developed a new way to press concentrated tea leaves into their material that enabled the tea sheet to hold its structure without needing additives. As a result, our tea sheets have much broader consumer appeal, as they are suitable for vegetarians and vegans due to the absence of gelatine.

Our experts created a proof of concept in six weeks and a working prototype in three months. The resulting product is a 100 per cent plastic-free, sustainable and compostable tea sheet. By partnering with beverage companies,our tea sheets will provide consumers with a sustainable choice for their much-loved drink, reducing the estimated 6.5 million kilograms of tea bag plastic disposed of each year in the UK alone.

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