|

Are Teabags Compostable | The Answer is Complicated!

Are teabags compostable? The answer is currently probably no, particularly with bigger brands, but things are changing and there are some teabags that are compostable. It all comes down to the brand and the composition of the bag. Unfortunately, the tea bags of many of the most common brands contain large amounts of polypropylene plastic; yes plastic! This means these are definitely not compostable.

The plastic content of tea bags

It has generally been a common assumption that teabags were made of compostable material and in truth many are and hopefully, within a few years, the majority will be too. But as things stand many are made from nylon and polypropylene plastic.

The reason for this is the compounds used to seal the tea bags. These have to be able to withstand boiling water so that the bag doesn’t break or dissolve into the drink. 

There are though, a number of issues with this both in terms of health and the environment. It has been the desire over the last decade or so to reduce the amount of plastic that we use that has driven the desire to find places where plastic is unexpectedly present. A group of Canadian researchers discovered plastic in tea bags and worked with the University of East Anglia[1] to discover how extensive the problem was in leading brands.

How far away are we from having tea bags that are compostable?

In terms of the big brands, they are working on transitioning to plant-based tea bags that are compostable, many though, are not there yet.

The problem has been the way that the bags have been sealed but some manufacturers have moved away from plastic and instead are sealing their tea bags with polylactic acid. This is a plant-based plastic that is home compostable, but at the moment though, this technology has been adopted by only a relatively few manufacturers.

Other options have been to make the bags from cotton, wood pulp or abaca. All three of these material are home compostable but might push the price of manufacture up.

What are the big brands doing to make their teabags compostable?

What are the big brands doing to make their teabags compostable?

In 2007, UK teabag manufacturer Tetley, working with the University of Leeds, produced a biodegradable teabag made from corn starch. The teabags were said to be strong enough to hold a cup of tea and to degrade within 12 weeks if put in food waste composting bins.

Yorkshire Tea, another prominent brand announced toward the end of 2021 that all their teabags would now plant-based tea bags. However, they still contain some elements that prevent home composting but they can be commercially composted, a step in the right direction.[2]

One big UK manufacturer, PG Tips,  has committed to making a home compostable teabag utilizing a fully plant-based bag [3]

However, the biodegradable teabags have not hit grocery stores yet. While some developments mean the bags may cause less of a problem than regular tea bags, they are still made from plastic and teabags are not composted by the normal composting process. Some local governments will collect teabags for recycling. But generally, they are too small to be processed by conventional recycling machinery, so have to be thrown away.

Which tea bags are compostable?

It is difficult to know which teabags are home compostable and which are not. Below we have put together a useful chart showing the brands in the US and the UK that are home compostable.

The chart is not comprehensive and if a brand is not on the list check their packaging or website.  

BrandTypeHome Comostable
US Brands
Numi TeaString & TagYes
Celestial SeasoningPillow StyleYes
BigelowString & TagYes
Republic of TeaPillow StyleYes
Red DiamondString & TagYes
Yogi TeaString & TagYes
UK Brands
PG TipsPyramidYes
ClipperPillow StyleYes
Harney & SonsPillow StyleYes
TeapigsPyramidYes
LiptonString & TagYes
Hampstead TeaString & TagYes
Waitrose TeaPillow StyleYes
TwiningsString & TagYes

Other solutions | Composting the Tea

Although the bags themselves might not be compostable the tea inside certainly is. 

Why Tea Leaves Are Good for Composting

Tea leaves that have been steeped in water are a fantastic organic material for your home composting pile. This is because tea leaves contain elevated levels of nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus which can help with your carbon to nitrogen ratio (C/N) especially if you have a lot of carbon-rich brown materials to offset.  

In addition, the tea leaves can aid in keeping moisture in the composting pile which is necessary for decomposition to take place efficiently. Tea leaves steeped in water may also aid to increase oxygen levels in the water, making it a more welcoming habitat for earthworms.

Therefore, even if your teabags are not compatible you can still empty out the tea from the bags and add the steeped leaves to your composting pile.

Summary | Are Teabags Compostable?

As we have seen the compostability of teabags is a complex situation. Eventually, we are probably going to get to a point where most teabags are compostable but currently we a long way short of that point yet.

The chart above gives you a good idea as to which teabags can be composted at home. If you are unsure check the outer packaging, it is likely that they will tell if they are.

Don’t get confused between Home Compostable or Compostable as they are very different things. Confusingly, compostable on the packaging means that it is commercially compostable, like the teabags from Yorkshire Tea.

So, unless the outer packaging says otherwise or, you have information to the contrary,  it is best to throw them away or empty the leaves to compost those separately. 

Notes

[1] University of East Anglia: Investigating the common tea bag

[2] Yorkshire Tea: An update on plant-based tea bags

[3] PG Tips: Biodegradable Tea Bags