Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Are teabags toxic and can I compost them?

Around the world, it is estimated that 2 billion people drink tea every morning.  Americans consume around 80 billion servings of tea a year and British people consume around 60 billion (96% of these are tea bags). 

What happens to all those tea leaves and tea bags?

Well, after making a cuppa, most people seem to toss the tea bags or tea leaves in the bin. In the UK apparently tea is one of the largest 'avoidable food wastes' in bins. Britain alone throws out 370,000 tonnes of tea bags and tea leaves each year. I am assuming that a similar type of figure would apply to Australia (proportioned to population size).

Can I compost teabags?

Tea bags could be thrown in the compost - or could they?  I used to think that the paper ones were fine, but now I find out you probably need to tip out the contents and bin the bag! Who except the most dedicated person is going to do that?

There are different types of tea bags and it seems that a small percentage of them are actually biodegradable.

Quite a lot of 'premium' tea bags are now made of nylon, rayon, thermoplastic or PVC  and cannot be composted. These tea bags by the way leach when hot water is poured on them - so avoid them, also because these plastic teabags are definitely not biodegradable. 

Nylon teabag pyramid - non biodegradable.

You'd think you'd be safe with the old paper version, but sadly most paper tea bags are also plastic infused, making them only 70-80% biodegradable. Also in order to stop some tea bags bursting open, many are sealed with a strip of heat-resistant polypropylene plastic.

Interestingly, paper tea bags are typically not made from wood pulp but from the fibres of a plant called abaca, similar to banana.

Unless you buy from an environmentally-friendly company which uses unbleached bags, most tea drinkers consume clean, white tea bags that are the result of intensive chemical processes. 

Many paper teabags are also treated with epichlorohydrin to strengthen the paper bag in water. 


Here's a couple of facts I found out about epichlorohydrin:

  • It is a compound mainly used in the production of epoxy resins. 
  • It is considered a potential carcinogen by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health2 (NIOSH).
  • Epichlorohydrin is used as a pesticide.
  • Dow Chemical Co is one of the largest producers of epichlorohydrin. Dow is the company responsible for the Bhopal Disaster in India -was the worst industrial disaster in human history. Twenty-five thousand people died, 500,000 were injured. The Dow Chemical Company is also the second-largest producer of toxic chemical waste in the U.S. 
  • It is also found in coffee filters, water filters, and sausage casings.

Worse still, when epichlorohydrin comes in contact with water, it changes into a chemical which has been shown to cause cancer in animals, and also been implicated in infertility and suppressed immune function1.

Chemicals in tea growing?

In addition, it's a well known fact that many tea companies use pesticides in tea agriculture. A report from Greenpeace released in 2015 said that 34 pesticides were found in typical tea.  This is not great for your health, but it is also atrocious for the health of the tea workers. Check out this report from the BBC http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-34173532 . 

(Source: Essential tea)

What to do?

  • Buy loose leaf, fair trade, organic tea and then you can happily drink and afterwards compost the used tea leaves or add them to your worm farm.
  • Choose unbleached, untreated paper teabags
  • Grow your own teas - blog coming soon about this
  • Use a teapot, a plunger, infuser
  • Make or buy reusable muslin tea bags

Loose leaf organic, fairtrade tea and homegrown tea are the best options.
Some extra links:http://www.countercurrents.org/shiva190710.htm



  1. Thanks Morag, I have never seen such a complete description of the problems with teabags. It is getting harder to find loose tea in most big supermarkets. I have a number of ways of making tea with leaves -including some things which look like perforated teaspoons nested together which hold the leaves when I dangle them in water. Looking forward to the recipes for herbal teas!

  2. This was the response from Nerada Organics when I asked about their teabags.
    "Thank you for your enquiry.
    Nerada Tea is continually keeping up to pace with consumer health issues and
    from time to time you will see changes in our production. Nerada Tea has
    HACCP and GMP Management System Certification, which are audited yearly. We
    make every effort to ensure our ingredients and all materials used, including
    the paper, are of the highest possible standard. Our paper is manufactured
    from a specially selected blend of high quality manila hemp. This has been
    oxygen whitened, ie. not treated with chlorine or chlorine based compounds.
    The paper also includes a small percentage of cellulose and thermoplastic
    fibres. These are necessary to ensure the sealing of the bags. The heatseal
    paper is certified as a food grade paper internationally and is manufactured
    for the specific purpose of infusions, tea, herbs and coffee in boiling water.
    The thermo-plastic fibres in the paper are not chemically broken down in any
    way so as to leach into the infused beverage - so it is 100% safe when used
    for the purpose it was made for. However, the heatseal paper is not 100%
    bio-degradable due to small amount of thermo-plastic fibre it contains.
    Nerada (along with many other tea packers in the world) use teabag machines
    that use heat to seal the filter paper closed so for us there is no other
    alternative. The paper itself is sustainable and safe. The main component is
    manila hemp the cultivation of which is in itself is sustainable.
    Regarding loose leaf version - I will pass your suggestion on to Management.
    Glad you enjoy our Chai tea - those who do purchase it often email me to say
    how much they enjoy the product. All the best.

    Kay Harper
    Customer Service
    Nerada Tea Pty Ltd"

    1. Thanks so much for your thorough response to this issue. It's good to know there are a number of responsible companies working towards providing safer and more sustainable products for their customers. I'm glad you got in touch.

  3. Great info! I only use teabags when away from home if I forget my infuser and jar of homegrown herbal tea, and it always feels so wasteful. Good to see several more reasons to avoid teabags, everyone should invest in a small infuser, so easy to use and leaves go in the compost :)

  4. Glad right now that I don't drink tea! Who would've thought that something so simple as a teabag could be so toxic! Meg

  5. Thanks for reminding me of the problems with tea bags - I normally use a tea pot and loose tea which means no bag and so no bleach no glue and none of the nasties you mention but have to admit to sometimes using tea bags for a single cup.

  6. Love this post! I've recently switched to only using loose leaf... can't wait to hear about growing your own tea! .. just recently found your blog/page Morag and I am loving it, thanks so much! :)