Composting tea bags – the tea leaves rot but the bags don’t

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Composting tea bags

Can You Compost Tea Bags?

You can make compost from tea bags. Nearly everyone who drinks tea, uses tea bags. Making compost of the soggy leftover tea bags is an ideal solution. Most people put them in the bin to go to landfill but there is an alternative. The tea in tea bags has a high nitrate value which will help to balance carbon-based components.

This is good news because there are billions of cups of tea made and drunk, around the world every year. It’s a very British thing to do. Traditionally it’s been an afternoon social event often accompanied with an assortment of highly desirable cakes.

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But tea has changed. Due to the growing desire we seem to have for evermore convenience, tea bags are with us and here to stay. But when we’ve had our cuppa, what do we do with the soggy bags.

  • Can you put tea bags in food waste?
  • Is a tea bag compostable?
  • Is tea biodegradable?

Yes to all the above, you can put tea bags in with the rest of the food waste along with everything else destined for the compost bin. Tea will break down and convert very quickly. By the time you throw out the used tea bag it will be wet and the bag contents being particulate makes ideal conditions for decomposition.

Can you put tea bags in food waste?

You will hear some say that you need to know which type of tea bag you have as though it will make any difference. When a used wet tea bag turns up in a compost bin or compost tumbler the microbial bacteria that visit it won’t be checking to see which type of tea bag it is. Nature will be taking over and nature neither knows or cares that it is a tea bag let alone what type.

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You don’t need to break open the tea bags for composting to take place. The microbial bacteria present in a compost bin or tumbler are more than capable of getting inside a tea bag. This will start the process then the worms will turn up to finish off. So, making compost from tea bags is an ideal convenience when your looking to put these soggy sachets out of sight.

However, there is a question-mark regarding the actual bags. At first sight they appear to be made from a high-quality tissue paper.

Is tea biodegradable?

But experience tells me that if you find a tea bag that has gone through a composting system, the bags tend to emerge almost untouched.

I’ve seen empty tea bags that have turned up in compost that has been formed over months. The contents have vanished leaving these white, easily recognisable old tea bags. So what’s going on?

The tea bag material isn’t just made from paper. In fact when I look closely at these empty bags I have to wonder if there is any paper involved at all. For them to survive just about every microorganism trying to consume them in the hostile environment of a compost bin there must be something about tea bags that is a bit different.

Most of the tea bags that we see are made up of 70 to 80% paper. This will degrade without trace and won’t be a problem. The remaining part is a very fine polypropylene plastic that will stick around for a long time but in the presence of ultraviolet light will break down eventually.

The thing is, because we use so many tea bags, if we insist on making compost from the contents, then, over time, we are going to see more and more of the wispy empty old tea bags blowing around in the garden.

Apparently the current UK government advice is to pick out these empty bags and feed them back into the compost system. This is embarrassingly pathetic advice for the obvious reason that if they didn’t break down on the first passing, through the composting system, they aren’t going to during subsequent attempts.

The best thing you can do is to pick them out of the compost when working in close contact with it and gathering them up. From here the obvious choice is to send them to landfill or, dare I say it, you could burn them. If you do this, make sure that you burn it at a high temperature.

Plastics that are burned at high temperature are much less polluting because full oxidation is being achieved. I’ve seen plastic waste being burned in a well-constructed fire-pit. The temperatures in such a system are so high that there is no smoke and you can’t smell the half burnt fumes that are normally associated with burning plastic.

The whole issue of single use plastics is likely to be either legislated away or manufacturers will be producing more environmentally acceptable products. Some have already started this producing tea bags made from vegetable products. This can then be added to a compost system with the full knowledge that it will all rot away without trace.

Do worms eat tea bags?

Worms will eat the ground down tea leaves inside the bag when the leaves have started rotting down. The young, small worms are able to get through the permeable membrane of the tea bag and digest the contents. They are clearly very efficient at doing this because whenever I find a tea bag that has gone through a composting system the bag is completely empty. You could almost say that it has been cleaned out.

Are plastic tea bags safe?

Is tea safe to drink from plastic tea bags? When we consider how much plastic plays in modern life and where food is concerned there doesn’t appear to be much if any evidence that plastic isn’t safe.

Are plastic tea bags safe?

When we make tea we use boiling water. That’s at 100°C. I know from my own experience of welding with plastic that polypropylene will not melt much below 150°C. The temperature will need to be considerably higher at 570°C for it to get to the point where it starts to become unstable and will combust, breaking down into vaporized components that may be harmful to health.

As for the wider environment, this is a single use plastic item and considering that it can escape, we have to accept that plastic tea bags are not ideal.

If they go straight to landfill and are buried along with everything else then they are contained for the most part.

If we make compost out of the tea in the bag then the bag is more likely to end up floating about and out of control. We all know how important it is to stop microscopic particles of plastic from getting into waterways and eventually finding its way into the sea.

So, am I worried about plastic tea bags? For the time being, no. But I do look forward, as I’m sure everyone else is, to the day when tea bags are all made from biodegradable starch based plastics. These will disappear without trace in a compost bin and the everlasting tea bag will become a thing of the past.

How long does it take for a compostable bag to break down?

Assuming that we are looking at biodegradable starch-type plastic, the disintegration period is short. In the right conditions where there is air and, more important, moisture, the process should be well underway within 2 weeks but to decompose fully it will take 3 to 6 months. This is inline with the time that it will take for most green wastes to turn into compost. When the material breaks down it very quickly becomes food to just about every microbial life form present. It will then become consumed and vanish completely.

When cornstarch biodegradable bags break down the only thing that’s released into the environment is C02. This will be from the C02 that was absorbed from the atmosphere by the plant that generated the corn. This makes the whole process carbon neutral.

Can you use tea bags in the garden?

As a mulch medium that holds onto moisture, there’s a place for tea bags. This would work well for pot plants. Placing used tea bags around a plant will help to retain moisture for the plant. There is a slight bonus, when watering the plant, the leachate from the tea bags has a nutrient value. This will find a way to the roots, feeding the plant. The leachate from tea bags tends to be acidic so reserve this practice for plants that prefer acid soil conditions.

Can you use tea bags in the garden?

Over time the contents of the used tea bag will rot away leaving the empty bag. These can be easily collected from a pot plant and disposed of appropriately. If you dig them into garden plant beds they may come to the surface and end up being dried out and blow around in the wind.

What do I do with my tea bags?

I feed my used tea bags to the Rolypig along with all the other kitchen waste. The Rolypig is an ‘in one end and out the other’ rotating composter. It takes about 16 weeks for the waste to go from the front to the back end where I collect some of the best compost you will ever find.

Compost tumbler

Most of the time the Rolypig stays still, you don’t need to keep rolling it over. The only time that you need to roll it is when the mouth end is starting to become bunged up. At this point you must roll it over but only just one half of a revolution. This will tumble the contents enough to make room for  more waste to be fed in at the mouth.

I regularly find empty tea bags which I can filter out. There is also a load of worms in the compost that I take out. These are the main reason why the used tea bags are completely empty.

As the Rolypig is rolled you just pull the head upright; it’s mounted as a simple swivel assembly. That’s the Rolypig.It lives on the lawn and eats kitchen waste.

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What else would you like to know?


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