How much plastic have you eaten today?

Are you reading this and relaxing with a hot cup of tea? Sounds nice, if you don’t mind a bit of plastic with your morning cuppa.

3 min read

If you’ve made a cup of tea today, using a teabag, you are most likely ingesting thousands of microplastics that you can’t even see. Somewhere along the way, companies decided that a fancy cup of tea needed to be made or sealed with plastic, instead of the paper they were originally designed with. Those fancy tea bags in silky packaging are actually pretty rubbish (hah) for you and the environment.  

Scientists at McGill University
in Montreal found that “steeping a single plastic tea bag at brewing temperature (95C) releases around 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nano plastics into a single cup.”

Before you ask, yes we know the plastic comes from the bag, not the tea or the water used, because they emptied the bags first and compared the microplastic contents to the water used without the bags.

Teabags are just one of many ‘hidden plastics’ that companies use in products we consume every day. Studies have found we eat as many as 50,000 microplastics a year (and that number is considered low). That is enough to make an entire credit card.

It becomes a health concern when your tea bag contains plastic, but it goes much further than tea. While we don’t yet know what microplastics are doing to us, if anything, it’s probably better for us and it is certainly better for the environment if we avoid them.

To quote Pete Myers, Ph.D., an adjunct chemistry professor at Carnegie Mellon University, ‘there cannot be no effect.’

We know it is harming our aquatic friends as phytoplankton (who by the way, produce about 80 per cent of our oxygen, not trees) are now ingesting it and displaying negative effects. Some preliminary studies have shown that a large load of microplastics disrupts both our immune system and our gut health. Each type of plastic and where it has been affects its potential to cause problems too – in aquatic environments for example, plastic attracts contaminants like lead which is not something you want more of in your body.

So how do you avoid sucking down plastic?

Well, honestly, it’s pretty hard to avoid at this point, but you can lessen how much you consume.

Firstly, stop buying bottled water. It is madness (or is it ingenious?) that we have built an entire industry on a product you can drink safely from your tap for free in most places in New Zealand. Bottled water is full of microplastics with 93 per cent of all brands tested showing significant levels of microplastic contamination.

Nestle led the way with more than 10,000 particles per litre. (Nestle, always making us proud.)  Tap water can be contaminated too, but if you drink only tap water, you would ingest about 4,000 particles annually, while if you drank solely bottled water, this could be more than 90,000. Skipping bottles of course means you also avoid adding further microplastics into the environment.

Secondly, make the switch to loose leaf tea. Honestly, I have a weird thing about ‘bits’ in the food I eat. I can’t cope with yoghurt with chunks of fruit in it and a cup of tea can be ruined for me if I see a stray leaf or two. But you know what? A leaf or two is better than a mouthful of plastic so I made the switch when I found out about this one out a few months ago.  

Seafood is a big one for microplastics because our oceans are filled with plastic particles. Small creatures such as phytoplankton consume particles, they are eaten by something bigger, they are eaten by something bigger again and on and on until it reaches us. Skip the fish or lessen your intake if you can.

Microplastics are now essentially ubiquitous in our environment, in almost every body of water and in the air we breathe. But you can lessen your intake, by paying attention to what you buy and the utensils and containers you use. This seems like the best option, for both our own health and for the environment.