Row of teabags on a white background.

Can you compost tea-bags?

We drink a lot of tea.

The British drink 36 billion cups of tea a year, while in 2018 the US consumed 84 billion cups.

That’s a lot!

So it makes sense to do something useful with them – something like composting. After all, a single teabag might not make much compost, but a year’s worth of teabags from a family can.

But you do need to distinguish between tea and tea bags.

Tea grounds themselves are very compostable. Tea is high in nitrogen, one of the key ingredients plants need. Tea consists of small particles, which means compost bacteria have got more surface area to work on. You can even add it directly to soil as a fertiliser.

But tea bags are a bit different. You can compost some tea bags, but if you are worried about small amounts of plastic, you won’t be able to compost all tea bags.

That’s because some tea bags do contain plastic. If you’re keen to eliminate micro plastic from your soil, home grown veg and local environment, you’re best off not using those tea bags.

But do you really want to spend your life snipping open tea bags and emptying out the tea grounds?

Thought not. So you need to know which tea bags are compostable and which are not.

Fortunately, tea retailers are increasingly aware of composters’ needs and their impact on the environment, and many are now changing the design of their tea bags to ensure they are safe for composting.

But plans don’t always come to fruition, as some companies haven’t mastered the art of creating tea bags without using plastic. For example, when Yorkshire tea first tried to create compostable tea bags, their bags fell apart in people’s cups.

(Yorkshire tea do amazing things for the environment, such as working with 4000 Kenyan farmers as well as British school children to plant over 2 million trees, so don’t be too hard on them 😉 )

Does it really matter if compost contains tiny amounts of plastic?

Let’s face it, much of the food we buy in the shop comes from soil with plastic in. A lot of commercial compost is produced from household waste, and not all households are 100% vigilant when it comes to keeping out every little bit of plastic.

The situation is bad enough that at a recent conference, Kathy Nicholls of the UK environment agency threatened a crackdown on composting sites.

As home gardeners and compost creators, we can go one better than commercial suppliers. After all one compelling reason for creating our own compost and growing our own food is to get better soil, healthier vegetables – and do our little bit for the environment.

It’s true that scientists say we need to do more research to know the full effect of plastic in the soil, and how bad it is for us. But what we do know is that these plastics contain pollutants such as DDT, can have negative effects on soil life (including worm fertility) and can move up the food chain.

So while there is not much plastic in tea bags, in an ideal world we’d avoid it.

Oil based plastic v. plant based plastic

It does get slightly more complicated.

Some companies, such as Tetley, use oil based plastics, which are not advised for use in compost.

However, other tea companies, such as Clipper, used plant based plastics, and even claim that these are not plastic.

That’s controversial, with one study by the University College of London claiming that biodegradable ‘compostable’ bags can still be intact three years after being buried in the ground.

That’s been my experience too. I tried putting food waste in biodegradable bags specifically designed for food waste in my Bokashi bins. Several weeks later the bags were still intact – it was certainly not one of my more successful experiments.

Plastic free brands

Fortunately there are a number of brands that have gone the extra mile and have eliminated all plastic from their bags. These include:

  • Abel & Cole Clipper
  • Co-op own brand 99
  • Pukka Herbs Teapigs
  • Twinings pyramid range
  • Waitrose Duchy range

Stick with those, and you should enjoy plastic free composting (and tea!)