Probably like many tea drinkers out there, I thought I was really doing something when I used my tea bag twice, sometimes even three times. It was a thrifty move for one, roughly half the price when all of the math is sorted. It helped the planet by putting less undue stress and expectations on tea trees, herbs or whatever variety was passing through my mug. And it created less waste: Less paper from when bags are all individually wrapped, fewer boxes to hold all the individually wrapped bags, and ultimately, fewer bags themselves and the little tags attached to them.
Maybe I was thinking too much about it. Or, maybe I wasn’t thinking enough! Turns out, tea bags can do much more than just a couple of cups of tea and provide quality organic material for the compost. There are all sorts of life hacks to be had with old tea bags, other ways to be thrifty, ways to directly and indirectly help the environment, and ways to make even less waste by gaining something. All of this, and it’s still possible to squeeze out that second cup first. What a world.
1. Bouquet Garni
For those of you who aren’t familiar with obscure cooking techniques, a bouquet garni is essentially a collection of herbs, spices, and such included in the preparation of a dish but removed afterward. The herbs are either bundled with string when in fresh sprig form and put into a … wait a minute … bag! For our purposes, we can do this with old herbal tea bags. How about rice with a hint of jasmine or oatmeal that has absorbed a bit of that old chai tea bag?
2. Plant Protection
For those of us growing food of one type (the pot variety) or another (the patio variety) or another (the garden variety), old tea bags can help with deterring pests and fungal infections. Simply use the old tea bags to make a weakened brew to water the plants with. Then sprinkle the leaves around the plants’ stems, which is a great way to repel pests and you can compost it all later on.
3. Some Fresh Air
Tea leaves are excellent at absorbing odors, so this can go down one of two (or more) ways. Old tea leaves/bags can be stored in the fridge to remain fresh and when something smells a little off, such as the carpet, bathmat, or kitty litter, the tea leaves can be added to absorb the smell, then discarded elsewhere. A few drops of fragrant essential oil can also be added to a tea bag to become an air freshener, ready to go again with just a few more drops of oil.
Speaking of fresh air, one thing that can really just foul it up is bad breath, but tea can help with that situation, too. To make your own mouthwash, boil 2-3 cups of water, add in 1 teaspoon of fresh organic mint leaves from a tea bag (choose organic), and boil for 20 seconds. You can also add in cloves, rosemary, and basil for more anti-bacterial properties. After it boils, let it cool, and there you go! You can strain it through a sieve to remove the leaves if needed. Store in a sealed jar and it will keep for about a week. Theoretically, any old tea bag can make a breath freshener, but the crispness of mint, citrus, or cinnamon is what we usually associated with fresh breath, so do as you like.
5. Scrub a Dub Dub
Absorbent as they are, used tea bags also make for effective scrubs. Soaked with grease-laden dishes, they will loosen things up a bit for easier washing and without harsh chemicals. Likewise, if those dishes got greasy and dirty because of cooking up some strong-smelling eats—think garlic or onions—then scrubbing our hands with tea bags will neutralize the smell, again, without chemical soaps.
6. A Soak or Two or Three
Assuming we’ve all double-dipped our tea bags (and why wouldn’t we?), then this next hack would make for a third soak. Tea bags have nice, nourishing antioxidants that do the skin good, so they can be used to make a relaxing foot bath, full-on candlelit bath (save some herbal bags for this as well), or even just a pinpointing a spot—a sunburn, sore eyes—and pressing a soaked bag over it.
7. Medicine for the Body
Kristina D.C. Hoepper/Flickr
Quite literally, old tea bags can be used as a topical medicine due to their antioxidants and anti-inflammatory benefits. Warm the bags a little and apply them to areas that are irritated or mildly infected, and the power of the tea will draw out the bad stuff. Not only this, but the good mojo in the bag will also ease the pain and rev up the recovery.
Again, the lovely thought of not only putting something like a used tea bag to good use, but also avoiding what would normally be done by chemical means is amazing. A weak tea made from old bags can actually be used to shine up and renew wood surfaces, like furniture or floors. As well, tea bags can be used to stain wood (or paper or cloth for that matter).
9. Streak-free Cleaner
More chemical avoidance comes in the form of glass and mirror cleaners made from tea. This time, use several old bags to create a really strong brew and use this mixture for cleaning windows and mirrors without streaks and without icy-blue chemical sprays. Wipe the surface with a tea-moistened cloth, then dry it for the finale.
10. Super Compost
We all know that organic tea and tea bags can be composted as long as the bags are made of paper or muslin, and not polypropylene, which will not decompose (you can check the box to find out, but these will typically have a waxy coating and won’t tear).
Moist tea leaves will help speed up the decomposition process and can even help with fungal problems and pests, but that’s not all. Collect up old bags to make a pitcher of tea to pour into compost heaps. It will speed up the pile’s decomposition and attract good bacteria into the mix.
I can’t help it. I love them all. Love the thriftiness, the usefulness, the eco-ness. Hopefully, you do too and we can all keep this ragtag operation of reducing and reusing going strong. Old tea bags to the future: Chin chin.
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