I have had several people asking the same question recently - "Is it ok to compost tea bags?"
The answer is, I'm afraid, a resounding "No!"
"But my tea bags say they don't contain plastic and are compostable?"
They might say that on the box, but it's not accurate!
There are two aspects to this question: firstly, what is in the actual teabag, and secondly, what do we mean by compostable.
First question first, then.
1) Most tea bags are stuck together using glue which contains plastic. This is not biodegradable, and they should NOT be put on the compost.
There are some brands which claim to be plastic-free, but in most cases, this is not actually true: if you read the pack, you will see that the manufacturers are making teabags using what they call "bio-plastic". This is a type of plastic made from plant material rather than from oil.
It is still plastic.
Side issue: all plastic is bio-degradable at some point: it just might take a long, long, long, time. Bio-plastic is far better at bio-degrading, but it is still NOT compostable. See question two.
2) "Compostable", to you and I, means "we can put it on our compost heaps at home". This is not the same as "bio-degradable" which means "will rot if processed at a commercial facility with very high temperatures".
Normal tea bags, whether advertised as "plastic free" or otherwise, will NOT rot on a domestic compost heap. Commercial facilities are much, much hotter than our little home-made heaps: they are carefully monitored and controlled to achieve the conditions needed to break down the contents. If you want to know a little about how it works, check out my article on commercial waste processing.
Properly speaking, "bio-degradable" should be the term we use for everything that will rot, but which needs commercial facilities to do so, and "compostable" means items which will rot in the small, cool, home composting bins - unfortunately, the terms "bio-degradable" and "compostable" are used interchangeably, and this is where the confusion stems from.
From personal experience I can assure you that tea bags do not rot, in a normal domestic compost bin set-up: when you empty out the bin a year or so later, there they are, still looking at you, along with all the egg shells (they DON'T rot!!), plastic labels and citrus peel.
Now, I did some research on so-called plastic-free tea bags and found this information, on the six best-selling brands of teabag:
Twinings: contain plastic. Some of the "tag" teabags are "plastic free" - they are made from a plant-based paper material that is folded and stitched with cotton.
How do you dispose of them? Normal ones = the bin. Tag ones - put them in the kitchen waste bin, to go to the council recycling plants.
PG Tips: contain plastic. Its website states that it is moving towards "fully biodegradable teabags" and we know what that means.
How do you dispose of them? The bin.
Yorkshire Tea: contain plastic. They are moving towards "plastic free" which means bio-plastic.
How do you dispose of them? Normal ones = the bin. When they go "plastic free" put them in the kitchen waste bin, to go to the council recycling plants.
Tetley: contain plastic.
How do you dispose of them? The bin.
Pukka: claims to be "plastic free" as they don't glue, they stitch them together.
How do you dispose of them? Put them in the kitchen waste bin, to go to the council recycling plants. Why? See below!
Are standard teabags plastic free? Clipper describes the teabag as plastic free, but the bags contain a "renewable, plant-based bio-polymer" - also known as a bio-plastic. It says it is exploring a number of green packaging initiatives, including improving recyclability and reducing packaging weight
How do you dispose of the teabag? The household food bin collected by the council
Other side issue: if you think about it, paper dissolves in water, and
what do you do with a tea bag? Answer: dunk it in water. The paper is
full of chemicals to prevent it dissolving, and do you really want to
introduce a full range of chemicals to your compost heap?