If you are anything like me, composting is a fascinating part of your day-to-day life. When I first started composting, I was trying to figure out how to get as many of my daily use items into the compost pile as possible. From bamboo toothbrushes to cornstarch plastic alternatives, It was pretty easy to tell what could go in the ‘post. Then I got to tea bags.
Tea bags were a lot more complicated to figure out what to do with than coffee grounds or veggie scraps. The tea bags, the tea leaves, the glue, and the strings, could they be composted? Will they decompose? Let’s find out!
Can Tea Bags Be Composted?
Tea bags can be composted but only in certain conditions and only ones made to decompose. Not all tea bags are made from biodegradable materials and, therefore, will not break down in compost. Depending on what it is made of, how it is sealed, and what’s attached to it, a tea bag’s compostability can be determined.
What Is it Made Of?
Teabags are commonly made from paper products like hemp and wood pulp. Some are woven with cotton and silk, but many use plastics and glues that are not biodegradable.
It is common for tea bags to be made from polypropylene plastics. Plastic tea bags are not biodegradable and, therefore, will not break down in a compost pile.
Many tea bags are also made from paper and can be composted. However, it is common for paper tea bags to contain some plastic elements. Glue to seal the bags closed and heat seals along the edges may be made of plastics that lead to paper tea bags being uncompostable.
Some tea bags are made from what are called plant-based plastics and are meant to be biodegradable in a way traditional plastics are not. While these organic materials are recyclable, the chemical process that created them makes it impossible for a home compost pile to break down. Heat over 140℉ for several weeks is needed for these plastics to decompose.
While commercially, this is not as common as other tea bag types, it is possible to buy your own bags and package your own tea blend. If you are doing this and are able to find cotton tea bags, you will have a fully compostable organic material, but it may take more than 6 months to fully break down.
Not nearly as common as it used to be, silk is still used in higher-end tea products. If you are a connoisseur of teas and find yourself with spent silk tea bags, you can compost them completely unperturbed. They are 100% biodegradable and will break down in your normal compost cycle.
How It is sealed?
Depending on how the tea leaves are contained in the bag, you may or may not have a tea bag you can compost. Glues are biodegradable but not compostable in a home compost pile.
It is common to find many medicinal teas and teas from new age brands come in bags that are folded shut. In the case of a folded shut tea bag, no other materials are used. If the existing materials are paper, cotton, or silk, you can compost the whole bag.
Tea bags can often be purchased that seal the bag with string. A tea bag sealed with string is either tied closed at the top, making a pyramid-shaped bag, or it is woven through the top, making a square-shaped sachet. If the materials that make the tea bag and the string used to tie it closed are compostable materials, then you can toss the whole bag in your pile, no problem.
Tiny metal staples can be used to both seal the tea bag and attach the steeping tag. Often, a very small metal staple is used, and it doesn’t pose much of a problem to the composting process. You have two options with metal staples, toss it in the compost with the tea bag or remove it and toss it in the recycling before composting the tea bag.
Commercial tea bag brands that produce large quantities of tea that sit on shelves for months use glues to hold everything together. These glues are more reliable at scale and have been manufactured to be biodegradable. They are not compostable, though, as a home compost cannot produce the conditions needed for the glue to break down.
How Long Do Tea Bags Take to Decompose?
Assuming that you have made sure all of the materials that comprise your tea bags are, in fact, compostable, it is natural that you would want to know how long tea bags take to decompose.
A few factors affect that time frame significantly.
Not all compostable materials are equal. Some materials, like paper, can decompose fast in as little as a week. Others, like cotton, may take 6 months to a year. This assumes it is tossed in a pile, mixed in, and left alone till the planting season. If you actively hot compost, cotton and silk may break down faster.
How the tea bag is sealed and what is attached to it can also contribute to the speed by which a bag breaks down. If a tea bag is sealed with a fold, it will decompose at the same rate as the rest of the tea bag. If a metal staple or sting is used, these attachments may take a little longer to become soil-like compost material.
What is inside the tea bag may also affect the timeframe it takes for a tea bag to decompose. If the tea inside is a fine powder, then the leaves may be broken down long before the bag around it. However, if the tea contents are hard-shelled, like cardamom, then it might take longer for them to break down entirely.
Regardless of the materials outside, inside, and attached to the tea bag, most biodegradable tea bags will decompose within 6-months to a year.
How Do You Know if a Tea Bag is Compostable?
That’s a lot of information to go through, and sometimes a quick overview is nice. Below is a breakdown of the information so far. This is how you know if a tea bag is compostable!
You can take a look at the materials the bag is made out of and the process used, and the materials it is sealed with. This will tell you if the bags are compostable and how long they will take to decompose.
|Material||Sealed- Glue||Sealed- Fold/Tied/Stapled||Compostable||Time to Break Down|
|Paper||✖||✔||Yes||1-week to 1-month|
|Plant-Based Plastic||✔||✖||No||Industrial Compost|
|Plant-Based Plastic||✖||✔||No||Industrial Compost|
|Cotton||✖||✔||Yes||6-months to 1-year|
|Silk||✖||✔||Yes||6-months to 1-year|
What Are Some Benefits of Composting Tea Bags?
Now that you know there are amazing composting options for tea bags, make sure to start looking for brands that make their bags compost friendly. But I am not just encouraging composting tea bags just for the sake of doing it. There are some amazing benefits to composting tea bags!
- Reduce Waste – If we don’t compost it and we don’t recycle it, chances are it ends up in a landfill. These landfills will be problems for many future generations. By taking accountability for your waste and moving as close as is comfortable for you to a zero-waste lifestyle, you can start making a huge difference.
- Improve Soil- Tea leaves and the bags that hold them all contain different elements and nutrients that can aid in soil improvement. Often times when living in a smaller space without a lot of yard waste, it can be hard to get the right balance of nitrogen and carbon in your compost. Tea leaves offer a great equalizer to that ratio.
- Awareness of What is in What You Consume – A lot of people believe that tea bags are all paper and have no knowledge of the microplastics they may be ingesting. When considering tea as a healthy alternative, it is important to be aware of what your bags are made of. Doing your research on compostables could give you insight into chemicals you may be unaware you are absorbing.
- Add freshness and a Pleasant Aroma – Even after a tea bag has been used, it still has a lovely smell. Tossing tea bags in your plant pots, garden or compost can help spread that aroma around. Discarded floral teas may attract pollinators, and any fragrance that helps mask some of the compost odors is definitely a good thing.