Plastic-Free Rooibos Tea: What is PLA and Why to Choose it?

Plastic in tea bags

Plastic is almost everywhere you look. When you look at a tea bag, plastic usually isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

Polypropylene is a plastic polymer found in many tea bags. A large number of tea bags are therefore cannot be composted or recycled. 

The amount of plastic is usually very small and varies between manufacturers. This can be the case for both plastic and paper teabags. 

While the small amount might seem insignificant, it adds up quickly when globally millions of cups of tea are consumed daily. These plastics will leech into the ground and cause harm to the environment. Additionally, polypropylene has a negative effect on our bodies’ endocrine system and can cause a plethora of health issues. 

Secondly, in some brands, the teabag itself is made out of plastic. This plastic begins to break down when the bag is put in hot water and  can release a huge amount of microplastics. This is no doubt a major health concern for tea drinkers who love to have their daily cup of tea.

What is PLA?

PLA, or polylactic acid, is a type of plastic-like material made from corn, sugar cane, and sugar beets. It can be used in a variety of different packaging materials, and we use it in our tea bags and sleeves.

PLA uses less energy to produce than conventional plastic, and is made from renewable plant sources. Being made from plant material, PLA is classified as a bioplastic. This makes it biodegradable, compostable, and overall better for the planet.

Normal plastic takes around 400 years to degrade. PLA will degrade in a week – under ideal conditions.

Disposal of PLA material

PLA tea bags

Unfortunately, PLA is designed for disposal systems in developed countries – where biodegradable waste is collected by municipal services and taken to industrial composters. PLA needs 60°C for a week to break down. This will be achieved in those industrial systems or a well managed compost heap, preferably in a warmer climate – summers in the Cape and Highveld and year round in Sub-tropical areas might achieve this. Your home bokashi system or pile of leaves in the corner of the garden is sadly not going to do it.

Still your second best option is putting these items into your normal bin. Although still going to landfill, bioplastics break down quicker than conventional plastics, and thus don’t stick around on the planet as long. A lower temperature just means its breakdown will be a bit slower – a few years, which is still better than a few centuries.

Do not recycle PLA

PLA Sunbird Rooibos tea bags

Whatever you do, these items should NOT BE RECYCLED, as the recycling infrastructure in South Africa can not yet support these kinds of bioplastics. Therefore, composting and landfill remain your best options for disposing of your Sunbird Rooibos teabags and the sleeve around them.

Sustainable packaging a priority

If you really want to have the most environmentally friendly tea making – we suggest switching to loose tea. Old leaves can be thrown directly into the garden (or regular waste if you don’t have one). Rooibos is easy to brew in either a coffee plunger or our infusers. Also, because Rooibos does not have the same oils as coffee, a quick rinse without detergent is good enough to keep it clean.

Because nature is close to our hearts, having our packaging as environmentally friendly as possible is important to us. We underestimated how challenging this would be; after all 'sustainability' means it can continue without depleting resources, so a sustainable business has to maintain itself. 

At times this has meant sacrificing principles in the short term and striking a balance between our own existence and beliefs we hold dear. Similarly, as a pioneering business, we've had to find the balance between leading customers to new products, and giving them what they know and want. 

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