People often ask us about composting tea bags. And we understand why! As a nation, we reportedly drink 100 million cups of tea every day1. If you’re like us, you probably use a fair number of tea bags. And if, like us, you’re no fan of food waste, it’s natural to wonder what can be done with them.
Many confidently guess that tea leaves are a safe bet for the compost bin. But tea bags are another (altogether more complex) matter. Can you compost tea bags? Moreover, should you compost tea bags? The shortest answer we can give you is: YES – in some cases. And you can certainly make the most of your used tea to enrich your soil and nourish your plants!
In this article, we’ll demystify words such as ‘plant-based’, ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’, break down which tea bags are recyclable and which tea bags compostable and tell you exactly what to do after drinking your cuppa to minimise waste.
Short on time? Shortcut to the answer to your burning compost questions by choosing from the links below.
- Are tea bags compostable or are they biodegradable?
- Compost: the basics
- Which tea bags are compostable?
- 3 Extraordinary upcycling ideas for used tea bags
- Are Dragonfly tea bags compostable?
Are tea bags compostable or are they biodegradable?
And what’s the difference? Some companies use ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ interchangeably. Clearly, tea bag terminology can be confusing, so let’s start with a glossary of terms.
This tea bag will break down into organic matter under the right conditions. However, it might only be suitable for industrial composting, not home composting.
‘Compostable’ means the teabag is suitable for industrial composting (via your food waste caddy). It can also sometimes mean that the tea bag is home-compostable (i.e., it will break down in your home compost heap) – but it doesn’t always mean this!
Polylactic Acid – a plant-based, biodegradable biopolymer made from renewable sources, such as corn. This is non-toxic and will break down into organic matter, but it needs specific conditions to do so. ‘Cornsilk’, ‘Cornstarch’ and ‘Soilon’ are types of PLA.
Certified home compostable:
This tea bag is made from 100% plant materials and is free from plastic, including bioplastic (PLA). It should break down in your home compost.
This tea bag, including the sealant, is made from plant-based materials. This might mean the tea bag contains PLA, which is a renewable and sustainable biopolymer. PLA will break down with industrial composting, but not in a regular home compost heap.
Compost: the very basics
Since you’re reading this blog, you likely already know compost as the benevolent pile of food and garden scraps quietly breaking down in your garden. Even better, you know it as the crumbly, soil-like result of this process. The nutrient-dense, microorganism-packed product of organic decomposition is a gardener’s best friend.
You possibly know of the many benefits of composting, such as:
And, if you are fortunate enough to have your own compost heap, you know it requires 4 ingredients:
- Carbon: ‘browns’, like cardboard and dry leaves
- Nitrogen: ‘greens’, like grass cuttings and food scraps
- Water: in small amounts
- Oxygen: for bugs to thrive and microorganisms to do their thing
‘Decomposers’ such as bacteria, fungi, ants, beetles and worms break down these ingredients into the soil-like plant food we know and love.
Lots of food and plant waste fall under the ‘greens’ and ‘browns’ categories, and contribute to a healthy, happy heap. But keen composters know there are scraps from both kitchen and garden that should be kept out of the compost pile. Meat and fish are examples, as are diseased plants.
Are tea leaves good for plants?
So where does tea fall? ‘Used’ or steeped tea leaves are ‘greens’ – nitrogen-rich matter that balances the carbon in your compost pile.
Tea leaves contain potassium and phosphorus which, along with nitrogen, are the makings of a good plant food2. Steeped leaves also help maintain moisture in your heap, and increase oxygen levels – brilliant for the bugs.
Is caffeine bad for compost?
Is it safe to add a lot of tea leaves to your compost, or does caffeine accumulate?
Caffeine is highly soluble, so a lot of what’s present in the leaves finds its way out of the leaves and into our cup of tea on first brew. But it’s true that some caffeine will stay behind. How much depends on a number of factors, from water temperature to leaf size. Some remaining caffeine will be broken down in the composting process, but a little may end up in your compost. In small amounts, caffeine is harmless to (and may even benefit) your plants3.
As a rule of thumb, as long as your tea leaves make up less than 20% of your whole compost heap, you shouldn’t have much to worry about4.
Is tea good for compost?
It’s safe to say that tea leaves are a brilliant addition to your home compost pile5. But how about tea bags?
Composting tea bags
About 97.5% of the tea, we Brits drink comes from tea bags6. So, can you simply put the whole tea bag into your compost caddy to get the benefits from the leaves?
This is where things get a little more complicated. One thing firmly in the ‘keep out’ of the compost pile is plastic. Plastic breaks down into microplastics, which accumulate in soil-living organisms with knock-on effects for plant health7.
At Dragonfly Tea, we don’t use petrochemical plastics in our tea bags. However, many brands do still use the fossil-fuel based plastic polypropylene in their tea bags, which is non-biodegradable. These tea bags aren’t suitable for home or industrial composting.
But what about plant-based plastic tea bags? And can we still use the leaves from plastic-based tea bags? Let’s look.
Plant-based tea bags
Plant-based (sometimes called biodegradable or plastic-free tea bags) are made from plant fibres, such as cellulose. It’s not technically correct to call them plastic-free, though, since they’re sometimes sealed with bioplastic PLA, a sustainable plant-based polymer.
Can I put them in my home compost?
While these tea bags are biodegradable, home compost heaps usually don’t create the conditions needed to break down PLA, so they won’t decompose at the same rate as the rest of your pile8. What that means is you might end up with partially or not-yet decomposed teabags in your finished compost.
A hot compost bin (if you’re lucky enough to have one!) will break down biodegradable tea bags more effectively, especially if you cut a few holes in the bag before popping in into the pile.
In short: not recommended. However, if the tea bag is ‘certified for home composting’, this means it doesn’t contain PLA and can be added to your home heap.
Can I put them in my food waste caddy?
Fully plant-based tea bags will break down fully in industrial composting conditions, leaving no microplastics.
In short: yes! Local authority food waste is processed to create fertiliser and generate electricity. You can safely recycle your tea bags in your food waste caddy.
Plastic-based tea bags
Fossil-fuel plastics, like polypropylene, should be kept out of the soil. If your tea bag brand doesn’t state on the packaging that the bags are ‘biodegradable’, ‘plastic-free’, ‘fully plant-based’, ‘compostable’ or similar, they probably contain polypropylene.
Can I put them in my home compost?
These tea bags often persist in your compost, clogging up your soil and posing a risk to wildlife, or they break down into harmful microplastics.
In short: No.
Can I put them in my food waste bin?
While some councils say they accept all tea bags in their food waste collections, it’s best to keep plastic out of the environment.
In short: No.
What about staples, strings and tags?
Staples should always be removed before tea bags are placed in any food waste or compost pile. Likewise, paper tags should be removed and added to your paper recycling. Cotton strings will biodegrade, so can be placed in food waste bins for industrial composting, but if the box doesn’t state that the tea bag string is 100% cotton, it’s safest to remove it and dispose of it with general waste.
How long does it take for tea bags to compost?
The answer to this is very much ‘it depends’. Tea bags suitable for home composting can take anywhere from 3 to 6 months to break down in a standard compost heap9.
If you’re a keen home composter, you could do as Dragonfly Tea fan, Lucy, does:
“I keep a beautiful ceramic pot by the kettle, which I use to
collect my used tea bags over the course of each day.
In the evening, I spend a couple of minutes tearing open the bags
and emptying the tea leaves into a pile, which I then add to my
compost bin. Empty plant-based tea bags then go in my food waste bin.
3 Extraordinary upcycling ideas for used tea bags
1. Planting seeds
Poke a hole in a used tea bag, pop in a couple of seeds, then place the whole thing in an old bread bag (or other upcycled packaging!), tie the top and leave for a day or two. The seeds should soon sprout!
2. Potting on
When you’re moving a plant into a larger pot, pop a couple of used plant-based tea bags into the new soil before transplanting. They’ll improve soil quality, increase drainage and retain moisture.
3. Aerating soil
Split the bag of a dry, used tea bag and pour tea leaves directly onto the soil around your plants. This helps improve oxygenation of the soil (and some say it helps deter cats!). This idea also works for used loose leaf tea leaves.
Are Dragonfly tea bags compostable?
Dragonfly Tea string & tag tea bags are certified home- compostable. Our pillow and pyramid tea bags are biodegradable and industrially compostable – so best popped in your food waste caddy composting or snipped to empty the leaves into your compost pile.
Looking to go low waste? Loose leaf teas are your best bet (and the tins are easily upcycled!).
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1. 6. https://www.tea.co.uk/tea-faqs