Over the years, people have been criticizing the production and use of single-use plastics because they take hundreds of years to break down in the environment. As a result, the continuous use of items that contain plastic significantly contributes to global plastic pollution. We are now shedding light on the fact that many tea bag products contain plastic. It’s common to see people throw their used tea bags in their kitchen caddy or compost bin without stopping to ask if they are actually compostable? After all, it’s made of just tea leaves and paper, right? Actually, this is not entirely true.
Many manufacturers have come under scrutiny for using plastics in their tea bags. Some of them use a plastic polymer called polypropylene in tea bags, ensuring the paper tea bags are heat-sealed and stronger when wet. But, apart from this, many tea bags are largely plastic material. This raises the question of whether it’s safe to put tea bags in the compost bin.
Related: for more sustainable options, check out our recommendations of the best eco-friendly and organic tea brands.
The answer to this question is not as straightforward as black and white. This is because various manufacturers use varying materials for their products. However, a common pattern has been the use of polypropylene to aid heat sealing of paper tea bags. This plastic component also ensures that the tea leaves stay intact in the bag while in hot water.
However, as we know, plastics are bad for the environment - even if in a small amount. And, of course, discarded plastic tea bags add up when you consider the billions we get through every year to cause environmental damage. Therefore, due to the presence of plastics in some tea bags, you should be wary of them before we try to compost used tea bags.
Home composting is an important eco-friendly activity. Many avid tea drinkers tend to include tea residue or even the whole bag in their compost bin or pile.
However, if the tea bags you’re using have plastics, simply put, you shouldn’t include them in the compost. Composting these types of tea bags will only contaminate the compost heap. This is because they release plastic particles that are not safe for the composting process. So what’s the solution to this?
We can first of all separate the qualities of tea leaves from tea bags. You can fully compost tea leaves because they make great organic material for composting. Some people even add these leaves directly to the soil as fertilizer.
Composting tea leaves is a great way to prevent sending these items to landfills. Instead, they serve the purpose of adding nutrients to the soil. This is particularly useful when you have a garden.
On the other hand, not all tea bags can be added to compost. If you’re unsure whether your tea bags are compostable, you can empty the tea leaves into the compost pile. Then, depending on your local recycling guidelines, you can either place the empty bag in the food waste recycling bin or not.
As stated earlier, you can’t put every tea bag in the compost bin. Apart from plastics, the aluminum staple on some bags is also not ideal for composting. To determine the materials manufacturers use in a bag, you can check their websites or send them an email for confirmation.
Thankfully, many tea brands are becoming aware of their impact on the environment. Also, conscious consumers are demanding transparency and accountability. This has led some manufacturers to switch the materials their tea bags are made from to plastic-free alternatives. In addition, many of them are now prioritizing fully biodegradable materials that will naturally break down in the environment.
Some also mention that their products are compostable bags due to materials like wood pulp and hemp. Depending on the manufacturer’s information, you can either add the bag to your compost heap or send it for industrial composting.
When choosing biodegradable or compostable tea bags, it’s important to understand the terms. Not all biodegradable tea bags are compostable. Also, not all items labeled as ‘compostable’ are suitable for composting at home.
Biodegradable products can sometimes take years to decompose. If we don’t dispose of them properly, under the correct oxygen levels, they may leave toxic waste behind. Before composting tea bags, find out if they’re suitable for home compost. This is because some products are only suitable for industrial composting. These commercial processes regulate the conditions in the environment for successful composting.
Tea bags present a convenient way to prepare tea. A study revealed that 51% of Americans use only tea bags, and 20% use mainly tea bags. From the online survey results, only 4% stated that they use only loose leaves. Many tea connoisseurs have always praised loose-leaf tea primarily for its flavourful benefits. However, eco-conscious consumers are increasingly switching to this alternative.
Unlike using a tea bag, you’re sure that your loose leaves are safe for your home compost. Loose tea leaves are also free from tea bag material and additions such as strings, labels, and tags. Generally, this ensures that your waste production is minimized.
You can simply steep the tea leaves and extract the liquid using reusable tea bags. Some of these options, such as muslin bags, make for suitable composting tea bags after they have been used and reached their natural end of life.
And while manufacturers are busy with innovations such as round tea bags or pyramids, what we’re looking for is better bags for the environment.
One of the prominent questions consumers have is, “can my tea bag go in the food waste bin?” This becomes increasingly relevant with suggestions around emptying the tea leaves to compost tea. “Then, what happens to the tea bags?” The general answer to this would be to avoid including tea bags in this bin. Instead, it would be more suitable to include the tea bags in the recycling container.
Contrary to this, many cities have created various bin systems. For example, some of them encourage consumers to include their tea bags in the food waste bin. However, this isn’t true for all cities. The cities that encourage this take the food wastes for industrial composting or anaerobic digestion. Afterward, they turn the waste into fertilizer or energy during the recycling process.
Some of the recyclers mention that the sealing plastics are minute and will therefore break down during the industrial process. However, there are still concerns about microplastics in the tea bag materials making their way into food chains through agricultural practices. Therefore, the best option is to either choose loose tea or purchase biodegradable or compostable tea bags.
When you compost tea bags, you’re helping to reduce the amount of methane produced in landfills. First, however, it’s important to consider the type of tea bag you use. Some manufacturers create tea bags that contain plastics that pose various challenges. This includes not being able to compost them and the question of if they’re completely recyclable.
Instead, tea lovers can opt for loose tea leaves or compostable tea bag brands. The best options are those that are suitable for home composting alongside your garden waste as well, apart from industrial composting.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.