4 Sustainable Ways To Repurpose Used Tea Leaves And Reduce Waste

Tea is a delicious and healthy drink enjoyed by many around the world, but what do you do with the leftover leaves?  Many people just throw them in the trash without a second thought, but those leaves still have life in them.  Not only do they still contain a lot of the nutrients that don’t get extracted in the steeping process, there are a number of other uses that you may not have expected. 

Whether you’re looking to reduce waste, get the most out of your tea, or replace store-bought products with something cheaper and more natural, tea has something to offer. Here are some creative ways to put your tea leaves to use that you may not have considered.

Some of these methods use steeped leaves right out of the teapot, but some use leaves that have been re-dried. Drying tea leaves is a simple process—for those who live in a dry enough climate, just lay them out flat on a paper towel and let them sit for a few days until they’re crunchy.  If you live in a more humid climate or don’t want to wait for them to air-dry, you can dry them in the oven (or even the microwave with a paper towel to absorb the moisture) on a low temperature in short intervals. When they’re ready they can be used immediately or stored in a clean container for later.

1) Ecological Cleaning With Used Tea Leaves

           One of the properties of tea leaves, both before and after steeping, is how well they absorb smells.  That has its downsides of course; If you don’t store your tea properly before you brew it, you may end up with some unwanted flavors that the leaves absorb during storage—maybe you keep your tea in the fridge and it’s too close to the cheese, or you reuse an empty jar for your tea and it still had a bit of odor from whatever was stored in it previously.  Nevertheless, you can also use this to your advantage after you’ve finished brewing your tea by using it to absorb bad odors around the house. And it’s not simply absorbing the odors—tea also has disinfecting properties, which can help eliminate the source of the smell and give additional cleaning benefits. 

Disinfection and deodorization properties

           Tea can be used wherever there are smells you want to get rid of.  For example, spread still-wet leaves on old cutting boards, pots and pans, or even the floor, and let them sit for a while. When you sweep or vacuum them up, any lingering odors will have been wicked away into the tea leaves. Or, you can use tea leaves to scrub your hands after handling onions or garlic to prevent the smell from sticking to your fingers. And finally, you can re-dry the leaves and make potpourri bags to put in stinky shoes, hang in a musty closet, or line the bottom of trash cans to keep your space smelling fresh.  Next time you notice a smell around your house that you want to get rid of, try using tea leaves! 

A Traditionally Japanese Cleaning Agent

Though most people nowadays use a vacuum to clean their floors, tea leaves have also been used for that purpose in Japan for many years.  Traditional woven flooring, called tatami, can absorb bad smells and germs in a room just like tea lives in a sock drawer can–-if you’ve ever been in a room with fresh tatami floors, you may have noticed the fresh, grassy smell.  Once they’ve had some use, still-damp tea leaves can be spread on the tatami to absorb both dust and bad smells, and even disinfect.  After sitting for a while, they can be swept up and discarded.  

A Nature Friendly Degreaser

           You may have known about how tea absorbs smells, but did you know that the astringency in tea also helps to clean windows and dirty dishes? Adding some tea leaves to your sink and letting your dishes soak can speed up cleaning time by loosening or removing the oils and grease.  For smudged windows and mirrors, try using a spray bottle with cooled tea instead of glass cleaner, and the fingerprints will be polished away.  If you have tile floors, put some tea in your mopwater to make them really shine—but be careful about discoloration on some materials such as linoleum.  

2) Used Tea Leaves In Cooking

If you’ve experienced the versatility of tea as a drink, this one probably won’t come as a surprise.  Even if you’ve already extracted all the flavor you can by brewing it, leftover tea leaves still have a lot of flavor and nutrients left in them if you eat them straight. Sprinkle them over any dish you want to give an extra boost of flavor, from sweet to savory.  I find dried green tea a good topping for soups and salads.  You can also grind them up and add the powder to a spice mix, or a spice rub for meats.  Or Infuse broth, milk, butter, oil, pasta sauce, or marinades with a savory black tea, a nutty genmaicha, or a vegetal sencha.  Keep in mind though, that you may have to use more tea leaves to get enough flavor since you’ve already steeped them.  

If you prefer to make sweeter dishes, many teas also make wonderful desserts; anyone who’s walked the streets of Kyoto has seen more matcha- and hojicha-flavored desserts than should be possible, and black tea has also made an appearance in bread and pastries as well. Don’t have any ideas of what to make?  There’s no shortage of recipes out there, both new and innovative, and more traditional.

Cooking with tea – an ages old custom

Cooking with and eating tea leaves is far from a new idea.  Monks at Todaiji Temple in Nara (famous for housing one of Japan’s three Great Buddha statues) have been eating rice porridge made with houjicha, called chagayu, for hundreds of years.  Chagayu is a version of a more standard rice porridge dish, okayu, which can be made easily in a rice cooker.  Another common dish throughout Japan is chazuke—also called bubuzuke in the Kyoto area—made by pouring green tea over cooked rice.  Chazuke can be found in many restaurants as a side dish, and supermarkets even have instant chazuke powder that you can add to rice, but it’s also not difficult to make at home.  If you’re feeling particularly lazy or don’t really like cooking, you can simply eat your tea leaves straight after steeping them with a dash of soy sauce or ponzu, which is increasingly popular in Japan. Gyokuro is particularly well-suited for this, since its umami notes pair well with soy sauce and it has a rich, full-bodied flavor after several steepings.  And that’s just Japan—a quick google search returns traditional recipes using tea from every corner of the globe.  

3) Used Tea Leaves As Fertilizer And Compost

You’re not the only one that can benefit from the residual nutrients in tea leaves—they make a good fertilizer for your garden.  Put your used tea leaves around the base of your plant in the soil to give it some extra nitrogen and help with moisture retention.  Or, if you happen to have a compost bin, tea leaves also work great there.  If you use conventional tea bags, however, they may release harmful chemicals into the soil or compost, so cut open the bag and use only the tea inside if the bag isn’t marked as home compostable. 

4) Art Made With Spent Tea Leaves

Perhaps one of the less conventional ways to use your tea leaves is for creative ventures, such as painting or dyeing fabric.  The only limit here is your imagination.  It can be as simple as dropping a wet teabag onto watercolor paper to create an abstract painting, or it can be as involved as the teabag kimonos carefully crafted by artist Wewer Keohane’s, tea leaf landscape drawings like designer Andrew Gorkovenko’s, or intricate teabag quilts like the ones made by Ruth Tabancay, another artist.  You can incorporate not only the shape of the leaves, but also the colors; black tea produces a tan or beige shade that is useful for giving white fabric or paper an aged look, and chamomile tea gives you bright yellow, butterfly pea blue. 

Painting and Dyeing with tea

Sustainable Used Tea Leaves tea Bags Bed

If you’d like to try your hand at painting or dyeing with tea, keep in mind that lighter teas such as green and oolong produce a fairly subtle color, so plan to use more leaves if you want to achieve something a little bolder.  Something else to be aware of is your materials—for painting and paper staining, be sure to use paper that’s intended for wet media that won’t tear or disintegrate when used for tea art.  For dyeing, use fabric made with natural fibers like wool or linen, as synthetic fibers like polyester don’t hold dye as well.  Fabric will stain a light color in as little as 5 or 10 minutes depending on the type of tea used and the ratio of tea to water, but can be left overnight for darker, brighter colors.  Optionally, finish by soaking your fabric in a solution of vinegar and salt to set the dye. 

 Now it’s your turn

There are many other uses for tea that we can’t possibly hope to cover in one short article, but hopefully you’ve found some helpful ideas for how to use your tea to its fullest potential.   Enjoy! 

And let us know in the comments how you use your spent tea leaves or which uses from this article you found interesting!

Watch our live talk about Sustainable repurposing of used tea leaves:


Disclaimer: many claimed health benefits and properties of tea lack sufficient scientific evidence or are backed by studies that use highly concentrated compounds well above the potency of actual tea beverages.  This article does not cover less-observable benefits of tea, particularly those used in skincare, due to contradictory information and lack of quantifiable evidence.





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