When it comes to sustainability, I have to admit. I am not at the forefront.
Don’t get me wrong. I still care about the environment and do what most of us do.
I use the back of my scrap papers, recycle bottles and plastics, and reuse my Amazon boxes to collect other boxes for recycling. And I don’t use teabags.
But I can certainly do more.
Recently, I felt especially bad when I noticed the sheer volume of used tea leaves that are tossed into the trash.
And NYC doesn’t make it easy for us to compost. Not all buildings in NYC have compost bins as it is a voluntary program.
Since I can’t reduce my tea consumption, I decided to research, experiment and put together the 6 easy ways to recycle used tea leaves.
Note that I did not include re-brewing tea leaves in different ways as a way to “recycle tea leaves” as I plan to talk about brewing methods as a separate topic.
Rather, this guide focuses on what to do with spent tea leaves once they have no flavor left for brewing.
1. Used Tea Leaves as Food
This is not the first time I am mentioning eating tea leaves as we previously shared a mushroom fried rice recipe that uses our [Bulang 2017] Raw Pu’er.
When adding tea leaves to fried rice, noodle, or salad dishes in a similar manner, I recommend using young raw pu-erh, green tea, or white tea. With highly oxidized or aged teas, I do find myself having a mental barrier when trying to add them directly to dishes.
Another way around this is frying the leaves (though I am personally too health-conscious to do this at home) or pickling them.
A quick tea pickle recipe based on Nepalese fermentation practices that Ezra Szkup shared with me is as follows:
- Step 1: Add a tablespoon of salt, some kombucha starter, leftover tea leaves, and lime juice to a mason jar.
- Step 2: Seal and place in a dark and warm place for 7-10 days.
- Step 3: Add pickled tea to your salad or use as a garnish.
2. Used Tea Leaves as a Deodorizer
You may have heard me say not to store your tea in your kitchen because tea is very absorbent.
The other side of the same coin is that spent tea leaves can be used to absorb bad odor!
How? It’s super easy.
- Step 1: Dry the leaves on a large plate or tray to avoid the leaves from getting moldy.
- Step 2: Gather the leaves and tie them up in a cheesecloth or add to a muslin bag.
- Step 3 (optional): Scent the bag with your favorite natural oil. Avoid using artificial scents as they might interfere with the composting discussed below.
- Step 4: Leave the bag in your fridge, wardrobe, drawer, shoe, or anywhere you want to deodorize.
I’ve also heard an anecdote about adding the leaves to a pillow to help sleep better.
3. Used Tea Leaves for Cleaning
But ironically, tea can be used to clean as well!
Cutting board: If it’s your first time, I suggest cleaning your cutting board by leaving damp leaves on it for a few minutes before scrubbing it clean. The leaves should absorb strong odors like meat or fish.
Dirty dishes: Ready to step it up? Try removing grease from your dishes before washing them. If you are squeamish like me, you can put the leaves on a paper filter but that would defeat the purpose of us trying to be sustainable.
- Windows: I have yet to try cleaning windows with tea. I find that there’s a greater chance of me splattering tea and staining curtains and carpets with tea. One way you can test is to try on your shower glass panel.
4. Tea Leaves for Skin Care
Tea leaves are full of antioxidants, such as catechins.
Just as many skincare brands advertise adding tea to their products, you can DIY a tea mask, scrub, or tonic for your skin.
You can soak facial pads with tea and put them on your tired eyelid.
You can also add tea to your tub for a bath.
I recommend using lighter colored tea, such as raw pu-erh, green tea, or white tea. Also, test a small batch on your arm or a different spot on your skin to make sure you don’t get any allergic reactions or stains.
If you brew your tea leaves until there’s no flavor left, you probably consumed most of the antioxidants from the leaves. So this approach would work better with fresh leaves.
5. Used Tea Leaves for Art
Making art with tea leaves was not originally on my list, but I loved the creativity of the idea when Marian, one of our Mansa Tea Society members, suggested it.
She said that her daughter steeps used tea leaves to create watercolors.
- Oolong makes lighter ocher colors
- Pu-erh makes more umber colors
- Matcha makes gorgeous green textured colors
She adjusts the intensity of the color with the amount of tea and steeping time.
This idea has never crossed my mind, but I can see how it can be a fun artful weekend with tea and painting.
I also heard that because tea leaves are high in tannin, they are good for making a tanning solution for tanning animal hides.
6. Tea Leaves for Gardening and Composting
Unless you eat all your tea leaves, you will still be left with tea leaves even after freshening your fridge, cleaning your cutting board, making DIY skincare products, and painting your new home decor.
If you have a backyard and you love gardening, this one's for you.
Watering: First, you can water your plants with brewed tea. You can boil the tea leaves to extract out all the “tea water” as possible. Make sure to cool before watering your plants.
Mulching: Create tea mulches for moisture and temperature regulation for your plants. Mulches also block sunlight and prevent weeds. Dry the leaves and collect them in a large jar before mulching to create a 3-4 inch layer of tea leaves on the soil.
- Composting: If you still have tea leaves left over, don’t forget to compost them!
A trick for fast composting without odor is to have a balanced mix of greens and browns (typically 1:3 ratio, but it depends on what you are composting).
- Green (high nitrogen): Fresh grass clippings, freshly picked weeds, most kitchen scraps, and tea leaves
- Brown (low nitrogen): Brown plant material, such as dried grass, fall leaves, wood products, paper. As greens age, they lose nitrogen and turn brown.
The distinction between green and brown is by the amount of nitrogen, not necessarily color. For example, brown coffee grounds are considered green for composting.
You can also collect the tea leaves and other compostable items in the freezer to remove odor until you are ready to compost or try vermicomposting.
If you don’t have a backyard, check to see if your city offers a municipal composting program. For example, NYC apartments with more than 9 units have to call to get a compost bin.
[Sadly, most food scrap drop-off sites in NYC have been closed since March 2020 due to budget cuts related to COVID-19.]
Hope this guide helps us become more sustainable tea lovers. As a company, Mansa Tea is also in the process of making our packaging more sustainable, so stay tuned!