Deterioration of bio-based polylactic acid plastic teabags under environmental conditions and their associated effects on earthworms

W. Courtene-Jones, F. Burgevin, L. Munns, M. B.T. Shillam, F. De Falco, A. Buchard, R. D. Handy, R. C. Thompson, M. E. Hanley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In response to the plastic waste crisis, teabag producers have substituted the petrochemical-plastic content of their products with bio-based, biodegradable polymers such as polylactic acid (PLA). Despite widespread use, the degradation rate of PLA/PLA-blended materials in natural soil and their effects on soil biota are poorly understood. This study examined the percentage mass deterioration of teabags with differing cellulose:PLA compositions following burial (−10 cm depth) in an arable field margin for 7-months, using a suite of analytical techniques, such as size exclusion chromatography, 1H nuclear magnetic resonance, dynamic scanning calorimetry, and scanning electron microscopy. The effect of 28-d exposure to teabag discs at environmentally relevant concentrations (0.02 %, 0.04 % and 0.07 % w/w) on the survival, growth and reproduction (OECD TG 222 protocol) of the key soil detritivore Eisenia fetida was assessed in laboratory trials. After 7-month burial, Tbag-A (2.4:1 blend) and Tbag-B (3.5:1 cellulose:PLA blend) lost 66 ± 5 % and 78 ± 4 % of their total mass, primarily attributed to degradation of cellulose as identified by FTIR spectroscopy and a reduction in the cellulose:PLA mass ratio, while Tbag-C (PLA) remained unchanged. There were clear treatment and dose-specific effects on the growth and reproductive output of E. fetida. At 0.07 % w/w of Tbag-A adult mortality marginally increased (15 %) and both the quantity of egg cocoons and the average mass of juveniles also increased, while at concentrations ≥0.04 % w/w of Tbag-C, the quantity of cocoons was suppressed. Adverse effects are comparable to those reported for non-biodegradable petrochemical-based plastic, demonstrating that bio-based PLA does not offer a more ‘environmentally friendly’ alternative. Our study emphasises the necessity to better understand the environmental fate and ecotoxicity of PLA/PLA-blends to ensure interventions developed through the UN Plastic Pollution Treaty to use alternatives and substitutes to conventional plastics do not result in unintended negative consequences.

Original languageEnglish
Article number172806
Number of pages9
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date20 May 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 20 May 2024

Data Availability Statement

Data will be made available on request.


  • Biopolymer
  • Compostable plastic
  • Ecotoxicology
  • Microplastics
  • Plastic alternative
  • Plastic substitute

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution

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