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Grocery store-bought tea bags release billions of microplastic particles into every cup
Those silky tea bags might be releasing plastics into your digestive system.
- A new study at McGill University discovered that many tea bags leach billions of plastic particles into every cup.
- While the health dangers are unknown, past research uncovered serious problems in other mammals when consuming such particles.
- Scientists estimate that between five and 13 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into oceans every single year.
When I initially shared a new study from McGill University that found plastic tea bags release billions of microplastics and nanoplastics on social media, most commenters asked, "Who drinks from plastic tea bags?" Many of us do, it turns out.
Discovering which companies use plastic tea bags takes some work, but the story isn't exactly new. In 2013, The Atlantic reported on an increasing amount of tea manufacturers placing their leaves in "silky" or "mesh" tea bags. What appeared to be an evolution of the standard Lipton's approach — you could see and smell the leaves — turns out to be potentially damaging to our health.
That's what Nathalie Tufenkji, a professor of chemical engineering at McGill, thought one day when ordering a cup of tea at a Montreal café. Along with fellow researchers, she tested out four different tea bags constructed of plastic in her laboratory. The team discovered that, when brewed to 95 degrees Celsius, these bags release 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles into each cup.
Their findings were published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology on Sept. 25.
Some tea bags may shed billions of microplastics per cup
We know the damage that climate change is having on oceans — yet another report, this one issued by the United Nations, highlights how dangerously close we are to destroying ecosystems that most biological life on the planet depends on.
Plastic is also a pervasive problem in our world: since the '50s, humans have produced over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, with roughly half of it being made over the last 15 years. Scientists estimate that between five and 13 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into oceans every single year. Warming temperatures and plastic particles create a perfect storm in the destruction of entire ocean habitats.
That's not the only place plastics show up, the McGill team writes. Microplastics have been discovered in table salt, fish, and water — from taps, but even more so from plastic water bottles. They're also being used in facial scrubs and toothpaste, along with, of course, drinking straws. In cafés around Los Angeles, I constantly witness cold brew coffee being served in plastic cups with plastic lids, sipped through with plastic straws that are delivered wrapped in plastic. I'm sure this practice is not limited to this city.
As the comedian, George Carlin, famously noted, maybe the purpose of humans was to put plastic on the planet. Given the data, his hypothesis may turn out to be correct.
Back to the McGill study, researchers steeped empty plastic teabags in reverse osmosis water for five minutes at 95 degrees Celsius. They then scanned the water using electron microscopy, confirming particle composition using two other forms of spectroscopy. The four brands used were all sourced from grocery stores and coffee shops in Montreal.
Photo by Zikri Maulana/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
As of now, the health impact of consuming plastic particles is unknown in humans. Previous studies have confirmed environmental and health effects in populations of algae, zooplankton, fish, and mice. Numerous studies involving the mammalian gut (in rodents, rabbits, and dogs) show that plastic particles are translocated in the body once inside of the digestive tract. The team writes,
"Potential biological responses include genotoxicity, apoptosis, and necrosis, which could lead to tissue damage, fibrosis and carcinogenesis."
As Taylor Orci wrote in The Atlantic in 2013, tea companies emphasize the quality of tea over the fact that you're drinking plastic. Best to disguise the fact that these particles are being leached into consumer's cups. That some companies advertise plastic-free teabags is telling of an industry-wide issue.
We'll need more research to uncover the actual health effects of drinking these particles — between 2013 and 2019, no one has measured the harm of these substances, making you wonder what the FDA and CDC are doing. Regardless, it's hard to square the benefits of green tea when you're enjoying it with a side of plastic.
Image source: Nathalie Tufenkji et al. McGill University.
Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?
Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.
Building a personal connection with students can counteract some negative side effects of remote learning.
- Not being able to engage with students in-person due to the pandemic has presented several new challenges for educators, both technical and social. Digital tools have changed the way we all think about learning, but George Couros argues that more needs to be done to make up for what has been lost during "emergency remote teaching."
- One interesting way he has seen to bridge that gap and strengthen teacher-student and student-student relationships is through an event called Identity Day. Giving students the opportunity to share something they are passionate about makes them feel more connected and gets them involved in their education.
- "My hope is that we take these skills and these abilities we're developing through this process and we actually become so much better for our kids when we get back to our face-to-face setting," Couros says. He adds that while no one can predict the future, we can all do our part to adapt to it.
Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.
- A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
- Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
- Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
A pile of recycled cardboard sits on the ground at Recology's Recycle Central on January 4, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images<p>A large part of the reason is speed. In a competitive market, pure players use the equation, <em>speed + convenience</em>, to drive adoption. This is especially relevant to the "last mile" GHG footprint: the distance between the distribution center and the consumer.</p><p>Interestingly, the smallest GHG footprint occurs when you order directly from a physical store—even smaller than going there yourself. Pure players, such as Amazon, are the greatest offenders. Variables like geographic location matter; the team looked at shopping in the UK, the US, China, and the Netherlands. </p><p>Sadegh Shahmohammadi, a PhD student at the Netherlands' Radboud University and corresponding author of the paper, <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/26/tech/greenhouse-gas-emissions-retail/index.html" target="_blank">says</a> the above "pattern holds true in countries where people mostly drive. It really depends on the country and consumer behavior there."</p><p>The researchers write that this year-and-a-half long study pushes back on previous research that claims online shopping to be better in terms of GHG footprints.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They have, however, compared the GHG emissions per shopping event and did not consider the link between the retail channels and the basket size, which leads to a different conclusion than that of the current study."</p><p>Online retail is where convenience trumps environment: people tend to order one item at a time when shopping on pure player sites, whereas they stock up on multiple items when visiting a store. Consumers will sometimes order a number of separate items over the course of a week rather than making one trip to purchase everything they need. </p><p>While greening efforts by online retailers are important, until a shift in consumer attitude changes, the current carbon footprint will be a hard obstacle to overcome. Amazon is trying to have it both ways—carbon-free and convenience addicted—and the math isn't adding up. If you need to order things, do it online, but try to consolidate your purchases as much as possible.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.